Local business owners look for opportunities, make changes in wake of COVID-19

View the original article on SteamboatPilot.com.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Routt County businessmen Jay Hirschfeld and John Weibel may not own restaurants, but they have felt the financial impacts brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak as many of their customers in the culinary world were forced to close their doors last month.

“Basically we lost all of our revenue and all of our customers within 48 hours,” said Hirschfeld, chief executive officer of 41North in Hayden. “Our model was exclusive to the restaurant industry. We didn’t really do any shares, and people were always wanting to buy our produce, but it wasn’t a process that we wanted to handle.”

He said serving the restaurants resulted in a stable business model that allowed 41North to work with local chefs who wanted to use homegrown, fresh produce for their recipes.

It was a business strategy Hirschfeld and co-founder Todd Chapman had relied on since opening the Yampa Valley’s first-ever aquaponics facility in September 2018.

41North was able to build a strong following among chefs and diners, and the produce that was grown in the company’s 3,680-square-foot facility made onto the menu of at least seven local restaurants, plus two to four more that would purchase 41North produce as needed.

“We would be like the butterhead salad at Table79 or the bok choy at The Laundry,” Hirschfeld said. “It was all pretty cool until it wasn’t.”

In the days following Gov. Jared Polis’ March 17 announcement ordering the closure of dine-in services, Hirschfeld’s phone began to ring.

“Then the cancellations started, and I was just like, ‘OK, we are going to have to shift everything.’ By the following Monday, I think everybody had canceled their orders,” Hirschfeld said. “We literally, within a weekend, had completely redone the website to launch a new product.”

Instead of catering to chefs and restaurants, 41North turned its attention to members.

“Overnight, we changed our model to do farm shares,” Hirschfeld said.

In the first week, 41North had 35 members who had purchased shares, and by the end of the next week, that number has doubled as people jumped at the chance to purchase locally grown produce that was delivered to their doors. Hirschfeld said the business is still evolving, but he believes the climate-controlled greenhouse, which was designed to capture and store heat energy, can support up to 115 shares, and possibly more. The company’s goal is to add three to five farm shares each week.

Customers can purchase a weekly half-share that includes at least $29 worth of produce by value, including a dozen Hayden Fresh Farm eggs and approximately $23 worth of greens, or a full-share that includes at least $49 worth of produce by value. Customers can also add Big Iron Coffee, NaturalPath CBD and Hayden Fresh Farm eggs, beef and pork to the delivery.

Hirschfeld said the farm share program will continue to develop through spring and summer and 41North will tailor its selection of crops to introduce more diverse residential produce including baby greens, salad mixes and mature herbs.

“Basically, we didn’t know if this was going to work. It was just a ‘Hail Mary’ pass … we put it out there in an email blast, and it took off,” Hirschfeld said. “I would say we’re at a comfortable capacity, but we are willing to push depending on the demand.”