Perhaps you've noticed the trend on social media: That coworker who is now deep into perfecting the ideal artisan sourdough boule. Or your friend's family, which has quickly gone from completing 500, to 1,000, to 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzles.
Yes, more time at home has meant a lot of things, including the rise of the stay-at-home hobbyist. And this change in people’s habits is helping some local businesses survive — even thrive — during the coronavirus crisis.
Growing grain and milling it into flour has long been a part of life at Four Star Farms in Northfield, MA. But last year, a decision was made to close the book on it. For long-term viability, the farm decided their future was in their other main crop — hops.
"It was probably late summer, early fall, we had slowly unveiled a plan to phase out our grain and milling operations," said Liz L'Etoile, director of sales and marketing.
The farm ended direct-to-consumer flour sales online months ago, and sales to wholesale and retail customers were supposed to stop this month. But when the COVID-19 crisis hit, L'Etoile said she started getting phone calls from regular customers saying they were having trouble finding flour. They'd ask the farm to make an exception and sell them some, "just this once."
"After a few of those phone calls, I decided I’ll just put a note on our website saying, 'Hey, if you need flour or want to place an order, just send me an email,'" L'Etoile said.
Within a week, her inbox was flooded. It was enough to convince the farm to relaunch its online store. Turns out, it wasn’t just their regular customers who were looking to buy.
"We're shipping out a lot of boxes to Colorado, Arizona, Michigan — places that are not cheap to ship to," L'Etoile said. "For March and April, our sales are better than they've ever been."
The farm had initially planned to sell their remaining grain in bulk this month at a steep discount. Instead, they’re now steadily milling it into flour to meet this flood of new demand. It’s an outcome far better for the farm’s bottom line — and couldn’t have come at a better time.
"Those orders that we otherwise wouldn’t have right now are what is keeping the farm open and paying payroll," L'Etoile said.
Payroll costs are something, it appears, will soon be going up a little at New Hampshire-based White Mountain Puzzles. According to company partner Sean Minton, they’ve not had to furlough or layoff any employees.
"And, in fact, I just had a call today with my office manager about hiring more people," Minton said last week.
Indeed, with so many people hunkered down at home, it’s boom time for the jigsaw puzzle industry. But an unprecedented spike in demand during a national crisis has also brought unprecedented challenges.
"At one point, both our factories were shut down," Minton said. "Our warehouse was shut down and demand was through the roof."
Things got so backed up at one point, they had to take their online store offline. But their factories are now back up and running — including one in Holyoke, Mass. — and they recently re-opened their online store.
"The day we turned it on, in 12 hours, we did more orders than we did all of last April," Minton said.
Many of their puzzles are sold out. But demand remains extremely high. They’re now regularly adding new puzzles with brand-new images as fast as they can.
And speaking of images, it appears many have uncovered old photos that may otherwise have been lost.
"I have found that a lot of people have been going through things at their homes and finding cameras that have been laying around," said Jackie Anderson, who owns and operates Colertek, a Boston photo processing lab near South Station. "They’re like, 'Oh well, let’s see what this is' — and rediscovering film."
Like other non-essential businesses, Anderson was forced to close her lab’s storefront to customers in March.
"At first I was just devastated," Anderson said. "I didn’t know what to do."
But she got the word out that people could still mail film in to be processed, or leave it in a drop box outside the lab. At first, there weren’t a lot of takers. But that's changing.
"It’s just picked up little by little," Anderson said. "And the last two weeks there’s been a bit of an uptick."
Some of that uptick has come from regular customers. But what’s keeping Anderson busy enough to come in every day to process film right now — and keeping her business afloat — is a spike in new customers.
"I’d say a good 50 percent of the people coming in now are new," she said. "Maybe even more."
Overall, Anderson said, her business is down, but she’s now optimistic she’ll weather the storm. And that’s no small thing. Colortek is the city’s last remaining big, custom photo lab. So for film photography aficionados old and new, Anderson simply surviving is crucial to keeping their pastime thriving here in Boston.