Maine’s stay-at-home order remains in place as we continue to “flatten the curve” and contain the spread of the coronavirus.
What’s unfortunate is that social distancing has wreaked havoc on the state economy. As of Thursday, 89,500 Mainers — 13 percent of the state’s workforce — had filed for unemployment, marking four straight weeks of record-high unemployment claims. Industries such as seafood — our state’s largest export — are seeing a 50 percent drop in business.
What’s fortunate, however, is that the fortitude and resilience of the business community shines through. In Maine, businesses large and small are working around the clock to keep their doors open, keep their workers on payroll and keep their heads held high.
They may be struggling to deal with an unprecedented pandemic, but entrepreneurs are by nature risk-takers — ready for good times and bad. And we are searching for the light at the end of the tunnel. For example, the seafood industry has now turned its attention to April’s scallop fishing season, hopeful that the consumer market will turn around come May and June.
And they’re not alone. Since the 1980s, I’ve run Hilltop Boilers, a family-owned maple syrup business in Newfield. Decades ago, I would sit in the kitchen at my grandmother’s house and watch her make a plate of pancakes with maple syrup drizzled all over the top. I look back fondly on those days and the joy they brought me. That joy eventually led me to start my own maple syrup business, serving countless Mainers over the years.
In all those years, I’ve never been in a situation like this. As one of more than 400 members of the Maine Maple Producers Association, we didn’t expect the coronavirus. We didn’t want to see the U.S. economy take a hit. Nor did we want to postpone Maine Maple Weekend, which hurt producers financially and socially. The association’s annual event held in March attracts more than 100 licensed sugarhouses for samplings and other family activities. We love sharing our family-run businesses with Mainers and visitors from across the country. Making matters worse, bulk buying of maple syrup also slowed down.
However, we know that postponing Maine Maple Weekend was the right thing to do. We look forward to having it open again soon. And we are tapping into other resources.
In the business world, we can’t just bury our heads in the sand. We have to adjust to changing circumstances. We must adapt.
At Hilltop Boilers, like many other producers and small businesses, we embraced technology and pivoted to online. We started offering free shipping on all orders over $10 to our local towns. We also implemented a local pickup option, so that Mainers could pick up maple syrup at no extra cost.
And it’s working. Online retail sales for the first five days in April surpassed sales for all of April 2019. In March, online sales were 370 percent higher than one year ago. We have only our customers to thank — we couldn’t have done it without you.
And that’s the point. Maine consumers can still make a world of difference for the business community, especially small businesses like ours. Hilltop is just one business on a long list of Maine success stories — entrepreneurial risk-takers who have adapted effectively to the “new normal.” If our state’s entrepreneurs continue to adapt, we can weather this storm for as long as the stay-at-home order remains in place. The key is fortitude and resilience.
Most importantly, the people of Maine must continue to “buy local” whenever and wherever possible. In our state, consumers account for more than 70 percent of all economic activity. We need consumerism now more than ever.
If you can support a small business, please do. From maple syrup producers to lobster fisherman, our financial security depends on your purchasing power. Use that power for the greater good.
Together, we can overcome the coronavirus and come out stronger on the other side. Let’s show the world just how tough Mainers can be.
Michael Bryant owns Hilltop Boilers Maple Syrup in Newfield and is a member of the Maine Maple Producers Association.