On Confronting Reality
By Brian Helfrich
Last Friday I was making a rare appearance behind the bar at Basecamp when I somewhat joked that the four of us working were akin to the quartet of string musicians on the Titanic. In the cinematic retelling of this event, water rushes toward the musicians with people screaming all around, and one speaks up to say, “Gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure playing music with you tonight.”
Four days ago, it seemed like there was still a sliver of room to have levity while the reality of the Coronavirus was closing in. Our Basecamp café, in particular, has built a reputation for always showing up for our community. During blizzards, our staff walks to work and spends hours shoveling the front walk if only to serve a few dozen people. During the recession in 2008, we did every last thing necessary to keep our doors open. It would take a natural disaster to knock us down, we’ve triumphed.
So, here we are, unequivocally facing a natural disaster. As the restauranteur Danny Meyer wrote this weekend, it’s a blizzard without the snow, it’s a tornado without the wind. We’re faced with the biggest global crisis in the 22 years that Summit has been in business, and we can’t even see it, can’t even feel it. Just like we confront blizzards, we are bundling up and walking straight into this thing. We’re standing in the middle of the street, getting blitzed by a storm we cannot see with no end in sight.
Summit is well-built for this, though we weren’t aware two weeks ago that the business we were building was preparing us to confront a global pandemic. Two weeks ago, we were refining our café operations, scaling the wholesale business, contemplating buying a bakery, and committed to opening a dozen franchises by year’s end. And now, we’re here.
It’s Tuesday, March 17, at 9:43am and we are still operating two stores, our roasting operation is in full swing, and for the most part we’ve dodged the worst part of the storm. So far. We know that there’s not an accurate forecast for what’s ahead later today, let alone tomorrow or next week or next month.
It’s hard for me to know quite how to dedicate my time this week. I spent most of Monday pacing around our windowless office with a purple Expo marker in my hand, staring at a blank whiteboard. As the day went on, I started writing down numbers between and during phone calls and meetings. I’ve talked to staff, to advisors, to other small business owners. I process most often by talking things out, by reading and learning. But as it turns out, nobody has written the book yet on how to deal with both a global health and global economic crisis in 2020.
By the end of yesterday, we had drafted plans for the next 2 weeks, the next 4 weeks, 4 months. But we also recognize that based on any number of factors we can’t even see, we may need to throw those plans out and start from scratch. The infamous boxer Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
As a leader, it’s important during a crisis to be both optimistic and realistic. We need to confront the very truth that we don’t know what the hell is ahead of us. And we also need to lean on each other to persevere. It’s during the blizzards that people have sought Summit for their refuge. It’s who we are, it’s the grit that makes up our DNA. But man, is it scary out here, in this storm.
I love owning a small business. It’s fun, it’s rewarding, it’s immediately gratifying, and it’s a constant intellectual challenge. But it’s really, really hard, and in times like this, it’s really scary. I know that we’re going to get through this, someway somehow, because that’s what Summit does. I am thankful that it’s a “we’re going to get through this” instead of me standing alone. This is not something to confront alone, which is why yesterday I texted several other small business owners just to check in. We need each other, we need community.
To bring my cinematic references full-circle, a story: I was headed out the door this morning while my two kids, ages 4 and 6, sat on the sofa watching “Frozen II” before they start Day 2 of who-knows-how-many-days of homeschooling with Tyler. And toward the end of “Frozen II,” the character Anna is suffering from tremendous grief and fear when she sings “The Next Right Thing.” While walking out the door, I paused to listen to the last verse:
Just do the next right thing
Take a step, step again
It is all that I can to do
The next right thing
I won’t look too far ahead
It’s too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath, this next step
This next choice is one that I can make
So I’ll walk through this night
Stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing
So here we are, Summit Coffee, facing the natural disaster, a storm somehow so severe and so enduring but also so hard to see. We’re simultaneously seeking shelter while also standing our ground.
What do we do from here? What does tomorrow look like? The best we can promise, I think, is to do the next right thing.