Local Businesses Change, Adapt, and Grow

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Brad Diggans has a couple of options for delivering groceries in Crozet.

Whether it’s being at the right time with the right product, changing course completely to fill a new need, or finding some hidden value in adapting to social isolation, several Crozet businesses are benefitting from their foresight and flexibility.

Before the disastrous leap of COVID-19 across the world, Crozet entrepreneur Arin Sime, founder of WebRTC Ventures, foresaw a growing demand for telemedicine. As luck would have it, he scheduled the public launch of his product, SimplyDoc, for March 2020, just as the world’s beleaguered health care professionals were scheduling as many office visits as possible by way of video interactions. 

Sime’s the founder of WebRTC ventures, a ten-year-old software development company that builds custom web and mobile applications for a wide array of industrial clients around the world. In the past, the firm developed software for other company’s products. “Simply Doc is the first true product that we have launched ourselves,” Sime said, “but it’s based on the experience we’ve built up over the last five years.” 

That experience came from producing customized live video software for businesses across the spectrum: healthcare, sports shows, broadcasting and corporate communications. With the first product of its own, the company began testing in the fall and planned a public launch at a major healthcare convention in March.

Fate intervened in a big way, canceling the convention but also increasing the demand. “We definitely have more people reaching out to us about telehealth solutions,” Sime said, and he expects the demand to increase.  That will happen when strict patient privacy regulations—temporarily relaxed during the pandemic––are restored and practices that hastily turned to tools like Zoom or FaceTime are required to find a more secure way to serve patients remotely.

He’d originally targeted larger practices, but after the pandemic, he released a smaller version of SimplyDoc and made it free for the first 30 days so smaller clinics and offices would have a quick solution.

Much of the product’s appeal is the company’s ability to adjust according to client needs, Sime said. A medical practice can adapt it to fit with its own design, and take appointments in their usual way, varying between “walk in” and scheduled. One large client wanted to review X-rays, so that was built in. Although clients have been primarily family practices and mental health professionals––including several local ones––Sime sees broader applications, for instance physical therapists who can guide their patients through rehabilitation. 

Sime and his family moved to Crozet seventeen years for a job at MusicToday. “We’ve been very fortunate to raise our sons in this area ever since,” he said.

Sime predicts a growing openness to remote medical appointments even after the pandemic is over. “We will certainly go back to having most of our medical visits in person, but I think that it will become much more commonplace to have visits over video when we don’t need to see the doctor in person.”

Instructor Wendy Reid teaches an online class for Santosha Yoga.

When social distancing closed down Santosha Yoga, co-owner Ashley Holland didn’t know if her members would go for an on-line version. “There’s yoga all over the internet,” she said, “and much of it is free.”

So, the studio took a couple of days off, she said, and came up with a very simple plan. The only investment was a tripod set up in the Crozet studio. “We weren’t quite sure what would happen,” she said, “so we didn’t want to invest in a lot of expensive sound and lighting equipment.”

She started with a couple of popular classes, and finding them well-received, added a few more until there were several choices each day. She based the choices on what she heard from members and which teachers felt comfortable with the remote version.

“I discovered that people found it very comforting to have the same teacher, even the same fellow students they were used to,” she said. “It was a good way for us all to stay connected.”

Some developments surprised her. Word spread. Friends and families of teachers and students who lived too far away to attend in person started joining and, in turn, told their friends. In addition, Santosha began to assemble a video library of carefully chosen classes. “We’ll always make these available, as well as live-streaming some classes, so there will always be new online videos, even after in-person classes resume,” she said. Although the online classes are available to all monthly members, there’s a new membership option for online classes only.

When Santosha reopens, there will still be social distancing, with no more than 10 people per class and at least six feet between them. 

“It felt strange at first,” Holland said, “but now we’re so grateful for the response.”

Crozet NorCro founder Brad Diggans was looking forward to his busy season when, one by one, all the events that power his business were cancelled. Diggans oversees the construction of temporary fences for sporting and entertainment events all over the country for Zoom Fencing, including events like the Boston Marathon and other huge competitions. “I wanted to find something to do in the meantime,” he said, “and I wanted to help the community somehow.” 

He came up with “NorCro” (from North Crozet, where he lives on St. George Avenue), the business that delivers groceries ordered from the Crozet Market. Raphael Strumlauf, the market’s owner, was thinking along the same lines. “He’d already put his inventory online and offered pick-up service,” Diggans said, “so he was ready.” 

Within three days the two men had a plan. Strumlauf would hire extra staff to pack up the groceries and Diggans would enlist some helpers to take deliveries to destinations within a five-mile radius. “At first, I thought I could do it all myself,” Diggans said, “but after a string of 10-hour days, I knew I needed to hire some help.”  Diggans enlisted three employees. “Shawn Bird’s trolley business (Bird owns Crozet Trolley) was also shut down,” he said, “so he’s one of them.” Diggans found surprising parallels between his former business and his new one: “logistics are everything,” he said. “You just have to make the smartest possible use of miles.”

The first day there were 25 orders, building to a peak of 55. Diggans has been surprised at how much he’s liked the role of delivery man, despite its usual humble position in the hierarchy of professions. “For one thing, it’s local,” he said. “I have loved getting to know Crozet’s back roads and subdivisions.” And he’s felt the community support, even with little face-to-face contact. “People will come out and wave and say thank you.”

Diggans also loves bikes, and has been trying to figure out how to make deliveries entirely by bicycle. He added an insulated box to an old bike for that purpose. Like many affected by the shutdown, he’s found a certain satisfaction in working within familiar surroundings, and he’d like to continue in this role.

“I’ve looked at several delivery models, and I’d love to expand,” he said. If he could make it cost-effective, he sees his service as a good one for restaurants, retail stores and pharmacies even after the shutdown is lifted. “We don’t know exactly how everyone’s shopping patterns will change. But we know that they will.”

Everything but the waffles: Chiles Orchard open, new plan for picking your own

Chiles Peach Orchard is now open for pick-up of apples, pancake mix, cider, donuts, jellies and other popular products every day. “There have been some changes,” Cynthia Chiles said, “but we are all doing well.” Before the strawberries started coming in, Chiles offered its year-round favorites for pick up. Now that the strawberries are ready, there’s been a change in how customers pay and pick: “We have them stick strictly to the rows we assign, keeping the correct distance,” she said, “and they use only the containers we provide.” That’s because would-be pickers pay at the beginning of their trip to the strawberry fields, and so don’t need to have any contact after that. ‘We had thought of going to that system, anyway,” Chiles said, “but this pushed us into it.” This reduces the process to only one transaction. There’s also a way to eliminate contact completely, by paying in advance for already-picked strawberries and other products and picking them up outside.

Chiles is open for business, but procedures have changed since last year’s strawberry season.

Workers are also observing all the guidelines requested by the Virginia Department of Agriculture. “They’ve been great,” Chiles said. There was one thing the family business could not reconfigure: “We just can’t do carry-out pancakes. They really need to be just off the griddle. But as soon as we can, we’ll start serving them again. We miss everybody.”

The peach trees were hit by frost, with some damage, Chiles said, but otherwise the orchard looks good and the bloom was especially beautiful this year, according to the many social-distancing Crozetians looking for a distraction by checking on the bloom as it spread throughout the orchard.  

Frost settles on local vines

Vineyards had a much more difficult time than peach trees (see above). Over at King Family Vineyards, winemaker Matthieu Finot reports an exhausting struggle during April’s coldest week.  “It was a tough and not really expected frost,” Finot said. Following a really mild winter, the vines produced buds very early, so were particularly susceptible to more than a week of threatened and actual frost. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve never had a week, nor a year, where we’ve had to fight frost that many times,” Finot said. Part of the strategy was using a helicopter to keep the frigid air from settling on the vines. “We were doing good until the morning of the 19th,” Finot said. “Despite the helicopter, we’ve had 20 percent frost damage.” But all things considered, he said, this was not too bad. “It could have been much worse,” he said.

A helicopter whirls warm and cold air at King Family Vineyards.

George Hodson of Veritas spoke about his personal experience and, as the president of the Virginia Wine Trail, that of other area vineyards. “This year was one of the most difficult frost seasons in a very long time,” he reported. “Early warmth and late frost combined for devastating effects for a number of wineries and vineyards across Central Virginia.”  Hodson said the loss at Veritas was probably more than 30 percent.

Vineyards at higher elevations and those growing varietals that had not emerged yet did not get the full brunt of the frost, he said: “But at vineyards at low elevations, specifically, with varietals like chardonnay, the impact was a total loss of primary buds.” The overall result will be significantly less fruit and diminished inventories of white wines and then reds into the winter of 2021.  But there’s still hope, Hodson said: “With significantly lower yields there is still the potential for increased quality.  We will have an exceptionally long growing season due to our early start and there’s the forecast of a particularly dry year. So, what fruit we get may be exceptionally good.”

Hodson expressed his confidence in the resilience of Virginia farm wineries, and predicted they will all emerge from the twin challenges of frost and pandemic better than ever.  “2020 is certainly the year for everything to go wrong, it seems,” he said. But he noted the enthusiastic growth of direct orders from all of the wineries: “The local support for local wineries has been astounding,” he said.

Biz Bits

Just in time for Mother’s Day, Crozet Artisan Depot created an online shopping site with curbside pickup available, offering a way to support a local business and local artists.  While the store in downtown Crozet is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, customers may now visit crozetartisandepot.square.site to choose from a variety of curated items from Central Virginia’s finest artisans.  A secure online checkout with a credit card confirms the purchase, and items will be packaged with gloved hands and great care, awaiting curbside pickup on Wednesdays and Saturdays from noon to 2 p.m. at the historic train depot, 5791 Three Notch’d Rd. During designated curbside hours, customers can pull into the parking lot and call the store at 434-205-4795 for purchases to be brought to the car. Items will be added weekly to the online shopping site.

Crozet Artisans Depot offers online shopping, onsite pickup.

Crozet natives and accomplished stonemasons Shelton Sprouse and John Mack Apperson are featured in the current issue of Virginia Living, which highlights the work of the veteran artisans at Monticello and other estates. The two grew up next door to each other and worked for years studying the patterns of stones in walls built by slave labor, duplicating them, and supplying local stones for historic projects. Their partnership continues with both in their late sixties.

With the changing economy and stocks all over the place, we heard from Christina Brown that financial advisors are considered to be an essential business. Brown is a branch office administrator at Edward Jones in Waynesboro, and she reports a great deal of activity, both buying and selling stocks, from a distance, of course. Others have opened new accounts, rebalanced their portfolios or rolled over their retirement accounts. “It’s an opportune time to invest,” she said. 

Johnny Mack Apperson and Shelton Sprouse are featured in Virginia Living.

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