March 2020 feels like forever ago. I remember Big Gretch shut everything down. As a food-based business, Sweet Potato Sensations was allowed to stay open for delivery and takeout, but our sales plummeted. The next day, we made $100 in five hours. Normally, we make that in the first 20 minutes. I said to my mom and my sister Jennifer, “This is scary. We need to figure out what we’re going to do.” We let our 15 staff members go that day so they could collect unemployment. We wanted to do the right thing.
We were closed for two months. In the 33 years since my parents opened the business, we had never closed except for two weeks every January for vacation. Jennifer and I both work in the business. I handle the front end, curating the look and feel of the bakery, hiring and training staff, and handling any public speaking events. Jennifer does the back end, cooking and baking, and product formulation. We live together, too, and suddenly we were just sitting at home, not even seeing our parents for the first month.
Other businesses were pausing and pivoting. We needed the pause — I did not know how to safely pivot. Friends were dying, and Instagram felt like reading the obits. We were overwhelmed, anxious about the state of the world and the civil unrest. It was just a lot.
My sister and I started having food delivered through DoorDash. It was shortly after we reopened in May 2020 that a Door-Dasher told me in the bakery that he had made $1,500 in a week. Since it was just me, Jennifer, and my mom working at the business, and we were now only open weekends, my sister and I decided to Door-Dash. We weren’t doing it for the money, though it helped pay household expenses. We were doing it to learn how other businesses were navigating this time. I didn’t think we had all the answers.
We’ve been around for a long time, but I still take business classes, I still ask questions, and I like to stay relevant. I was curious as a person who owns a substantial business in the city to drive for DoorDash and conduct a sort of undercover marketing study. By Door-Dashing, we could learn what other restaurants were doing to stay safe and how the food delivery was handled to make our bakery better. I’m all about food safety. We downloaded the app, signed up, and after a background check, started driving.
DoorDash is kind of like Super Mario Kart. The app lets you know the hot spots where you can make the most deliveries in an hour and offers surge prices to drivers, like an extra $200 if you make 10 deliveries by a certain time. It keeps you motivated. But Dashing was especially nice for us because it was kind of mindless and kept us from worrying about the business. We would listen to music in the car and laugh between checking out restaurants and delivering food.
We ended up Door-Dashing for around three months, driving around 15 hours a week, maybe more, and made a couple of hundred bucks a night with tips. We would plot out where to go and when to go. While Jennifer circled the block, I would pick up the deliveries and see if they were using plexiglass and wearing PPE, and how they were packaging food and treating drivers. And we saw the difference in the food available in the suburbs and city. Late at night, there is only fast food in the city.
At the height of the pandemic, you didn’t know what the person you were dropping the food off for might be suffering from or dealing with. We also learned some places don’t package the food very well. I always wore a mask and gloves and called people if a substitution was needed, and would text when their food had arrived saying, “This is Prancer, your Dasher.” I would touch the box or bag to give it good energy, and always make sure the bags were secure.
Now our bakery is open again, and when a bag goes out the door, I make sure it’s stapled or sealed with tape. I also can always tell when a Dasher is in the bakery by the way they stare at their phone and the exits, trying to get to the next delivery fast. I try to get them out the door quickly because they earn more if they can make more deliveries per hour.
Once, when a friend heard I was Dashing, she asked me if everything was OK. I told her we were fine. But for a lot of Dashers, this is how they’ve been feeding their families through the pandemic.
Espy Thomas is co-owner of Sweet Potato Sensations. 17337 Lahser Road, Detroit; 313-532-7996; sweetpotatosensations.com