grocery bags delivered outside door
From family farms to puzzle suppliers, these niche businesses are finding success among the change in consumer need as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. — Getty Images/jordachelr

While the response to COVID-19 has shut down many small businesses, these seven businesses have found themselves busier than ever, as part of an alternative supply chain.

Family farms

Due to both real and feared shortages, many shoppers are sourcing their food closer to the farm. With store shelves stripped bare of flour and yeast, determined bread and pizza makers have turned to the internet. There, they’ve discovered producers of stoneground, heritage flour like Sunrise Flour Mill in Minnesota.

The narrative around meat and chicken is similar. The depleted meat cases in many grocery stores, combined with the safety of shopping by computer, has meant a boost in traffic to sites like Farm Foods Market. The family farms represented there offer farm-to-front-door delivery of organic and grass-fed meats and sustainably harvested seafood.

Alternative cleaning supplies

We aren’t just washing our hands more these days. We’re washing surfaces, too. Counter tops and appliances are being wiped down constantly, creating unprecedented demand for cleaning products. Paper towels and spray-on surface cleaners were among the first items to disappear from store shelves, causing consumers to search out an alternative.

It turns out, some folks gave up paper towels prior to the current pandemic — to save trees and money. Companies like Package Free were selling Swedish dishcloths and reusable paper towels before the CDC instructed us to clean, clean, clean. They’re just selling a lot more, now.

There are several differences between the high-end cleaning products offered by The Laundress and those that once lined grocery store shelves. They smell differently, they’re concentrated and they’re sold in clear glass, reusable containers. They are also in stock and ready to be shipped directly the customer’s door. That last distinction has led to a surge in orders for this niche business and others like it.

Imperfect produce delivery

The concept of saving money and avoiding a grocery trip is particularly appealing these days, and it has caused a spike in business for dealers in imperfect produce. Most shoppers probably don’t think of themselves as perfectionists, but grocery chains treat them as such. To avoid paying for food their customers won’t buy, most stores only purchase flawless looking fruit and vegetables.

In ordinary times, a lot of flawed produce goes to waste, but some is sold online, at a discount. Companies like Imperfect Foods and Misfits Market offer subscription services, delivering boxes of less-than-perfect-looking produce direct to customers’ doors. Demand is now so high that many of these businesses have been forced to limit quantities and/or temporarily turn away new customers.

The increased demand for specialty foods is most likely the result of many factors. People have more time to cook — and shop.

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Game and puzzle suppliers

After a full day of online schooling and Zoom meetings, many families are seeking entertainment sans screens. Although board games were experiencing a resurgence before the pandemic, not every household had a Catan or Parcheesi tucked away.

The increase in demand for unplugged entertainment has been a boon to online purveyors of puzzles and games. Wisconsin-based Boardlandia has acquired so many new customers that they were temporarily out of stock on puzzles.

Bamboo toilet paper

The toilet paper shortage has been the source of at least a thousand memes and a great deal of frustration. Some consumers have purchased their usual paper in new places, like home centers and office supply stores. Some, however, have switched to a new product altogether.

Fans of bamboo toilet paper, from companies like Package Free Shop, tout it as softer, stronger and more sustainable than the standard. Those claims made for a modestly sized niche market before the pandemic caused a run on an indispensable product. If demand has not totally outstripped supply, it has come close to overwhelming many of these small businesses, which are now out of stock and awaiting new inventory.

Garden supply

With parks and hiking trails closed in many places, gardening is an outdoor activity that’s both safe and trending. In many states, horticulture has been deemed an essential business, allowing local garden centers to thrive, while other stores in the neighborhood remain shuttered.

And it’s not just flowers and shrubs, either. Hedging against the possibility that farmers’ markets will not open this year, many folks are planning to grow their own local produce; planting vegetable gardens for the first time. Increased demand has put seed companies like Harris Seeds and Baker Creek behind in their shipping schedules.

Specialty food suppliers

When things go missing from grocery shelves, shoppers start exploring new avenues. Bob’s Red Mill and Kodiak Cakes are experiencing much higher than normal demand for their baking products, which range from granola to flour to brownie mixes. The website for Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Zingerman’s, which ships a wide variety of gourmet and specialty foods including cheese, bread and olive oil, reports that they remain open but are busier than usual.

The increased demand for specialty foods is most likely the result of many factors. People have more time to cook — and shop. It’s also possible that something new in the pantry will help relieve the boredom a month or more of quarantine can induce. Whatever the motivation, specialty food suppliers are attracting new customers and selling more than they anticipated just a few months ago.

It’s safe to say no one would have chosen this turn of events, even if it guaranteed a surge in business. But the virus happened, and it’s good to know it brought opportunity for some.

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Published April 22, 2020