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Small Business Outlook: Susie Farbin-Kawamoto

Co-owner, MaMa Jean's Natural Foods Market LLC

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Susie Farbin-Kawamoto co-owns MaMa Jean’s, an 18-year-old grocery store and natural market with three Springfield locations. The multimillion-dollar business was named 2018 Retailer of the Year by WholeFoods Magazine.

SBJ: How has your small business fared against bigger grocery chains during the pandemic?
Farbin-Kawamoto: As far as grocery specialty stores, it’s a good time for us because a lot of people are eating more at home. I think that the virus has rattled some people as far as not always counting on good health. I believe a lot of people have decided, “I need to take better care of myself so that I have a better immune system when something like this comes along.”

SBJ: Half of the Paycheck Protection Program loans reportedly went to only 5% of recipients. In the absence of government relief, how are small businesses surviving?
Farbin-Kawamoto: Our business picked up, so if we needed to pay overtime or add part-time people to increase our hours, we did. We could afford to because our business increased. I’m glad that the PPP money was put in place, that was a good thing, but I think a lot more help could be there for other small businesses, little restaurants and places who are struggling so much. We have had to pay a lot of people who have been exposed because we want them to stay home, so we’re paying them while they’re not working. That’s what it allowed us to do.

SBJ: There’s been an increase this past year in what’s called mission-driven shopping, with shoppers making fewer trips but buying more each trip. Has that been true at MaMa Jean’s?
Farbin-Kawamoto: We’ve seen that, and actually, we have requested that of our customers. Because we’re trying to keep the number of people down in our stores, we asked them to try not to do smaller trips. I think people will slip back into their regular routines. It’ll be a little while, but I think by summer, we’ll see people going out a little more often.

SBJ: What other shopping trends have you identified?
Farbin-Kawamoto: We’re seeing more solo shoppers instead of families or couples. With all of our stores having delis, a lot of people would eat, hang out and socialize. That definitely changed as far as the atmosphere. We did what we can to make some people feel more comfortable, but it’s still probably only 50% back to where it was back before COVID. That has probably been the biggest change in our store, that and the uptake and the increase of curbside, which we started six weeks before COVID. We just were lucky that we already were launching it at the time.

SBJ: Without shoppers browsing as much in store aisles, how have small and local businesses been able to get new products in front of consumers?
Farbin-Kawamoto: We wanted to support local when we started the store 18 years ago, so we always have local products featured on our website. For a long time, people were allowing substitutions in their pickup orders because they just wanted the product. So before, where people were very particular in brands, it went in the opposite direction. If I can’t have this brand, give me the closest thing to it.

SBJ: MaMa Jean’s recently relocated the Campbell Avenue flagship store. Did COVID impact the plans?
Farbin-Kawamoto: I signed a lease for the new location, which is at 228 W. Sunshine St., and then all of a sudden COVID hit. I panicked, and I threw on the brakes for several months. We’re really excited about it, because the deli will have a very nice outside eating area. I’ve thought of things in the design because of COVID. I put a hand sink by our bulk and produce section, and on the deli side, I added a bathroom and a sink just outside the restroom. Normally, I would have some aisles come a little closer to the cash stands, but I wanted to make sure there’s plenty of room for people to stay distanced, so it did affect the layout of the store.

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