The hazards of good fortune in business are many: the physical toll of the added work, the mental toll of rethinking everything you’ve come to know, the psychic toll of raised expectations. They combine for a perfect storm that one feels guilty begrudging because the upsides of fame and fortune, while perhaps fleeting, seem so positive.
I speak from personal experience. On Monday, April 14, I awoke and headed over to the bakery as I would any other Monday. While sifting through mail, our store manager and I both noticed that our cell phones were lighting up. Emails, texts, and Facebook posts (interestingly, no one called) were streaming in. The Huffington Post had run a story about Prantl’s and its famous Burnt Almond Torte headlined “Thank You, Pittsburgh, For The Greatest Cake America Has Ever Made.” We felt so honored and as the kudos poured in we realized that this is what every small business, heck, every business of any size, dreams of: to be “discovered.” It changed everything. The week before Easter last year we shipped 24 burnt almond tortes. That same week this year, we took more than 2,000 orders. And that doesn’t begin to measure the impact on the retail stores. Walk-in customers for tortes went through the roof, and for the first time in Prantl’s history we had to ask customers to pre-order so we could guarantee them product.
How does one cope with such a wonderful but unexpected challenge? Adrenaline helps. First, you work yourself to the bone and hope others will, too. Our store staff, our shipping staff (who recruited friends and neighbors to what became known as “Team Torte”) and our families all had to pitch in on no notice. Next, you prioritize and force yourself to make what may seem like draconian decisions. Never ones to say “no,” we nonetheless set a cap on the number of tortes we could send in a week and created a “back order” protocol that extended ship dates into June.
Then, you start trying to anticipate and mitigate what feels like inevitable failure. We knew we ran the risk of stocking out of tortes in our stores the day before Easter, potentially incurring the wrath of regular customers whose loyalty had brought us this far. We tried our best to communicate the need for pre-orders, but also steeled ourselves with a “rain check discount” program for anyone who came and was disappointed.
All the while, we tried our best to respond to every person who contacted us with congratulations or requests, even if the stress of increased demand didn’t leave time to chat extensively with the retired couple from Minnesota planning a trip to Pittsburgh or the attorney interested in copyright issues related to unique food products. “Nice is so nice” became our mantra as we circulated complimentary correspondence from customers as a salve to the wounds inflicted by people telling us to “%*!% off” when told it would be four weeks before we could ship them a torte.
Several weeks “post apocalypse,” we are slowly returning to normal. But is that a good thing? My business partner worries rightly that we are going to fall off a revenue cliff. We put a lot of thought into how to handle more volume; is now the time to expand? Should we reinvest some of the windfall in marketing to keep volume high? Do we need to be thinking about third-party partners? Is it time to upgrade some of our vendors and support services? How much of the windfall should be shared with our staff or invested in improvements versus saved for the inevitable rainy day? Our primary goal still is to meet the needs of the customers in front of us, so we are in “designed procrastination” mode and will revisit these questions in the coming months. Stay tuned…