The 'Joy Box' includes products from a variety of Philly producers

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The common Vietnamese phrase “đi uống cà phê,” means “Let’s get coffee.” But it’s not just about the drink. The phrase signifies something deeper — that getting coffee is a way to connect with others and bring people together.

At Càphê Roasters, “let’s get coffee” is a mantra. During the pandemic, the message has taken on a new meaning.

Since our founding in 2018, we’ve been based in Kensington, operating a wholesale business. We loved knowing that it’s our product bringing people together around a cup of coffee at our partners’ shops or cafes. When many of these locations were forced to close, we looked for a pivot to make it through.

The situation was pretty dire. Almost 70% of our wholesale partners shut down, and our other major sales often came from weddings, corporate events and pop-up collaborations.

We found solutions by connecting with new partners, something that was largely facilitated by new technology. For us, one of the biggest lessons of the pandemic has been that affordable digital tools exist that can help at-risk businesses diversify. Exploring digital advertising and online sales helped our small coffee venture not just survive the pandemic, but also expand our customer base. It seems the critical nature of these free or low-cost digital services has been overlooked by some in Congress — and that has us concerned.

Adopting these new services led to a 45% increase in site visits from February to March. That was the starkest period of transition in our business, but one that also saw an 80% conversion rate in customers who visited the site making a purchase.

Somewhat surprisingly, the online tools were also critical in creating community.

They allowed us to integrate more closely with other businesses and become more deeply connected with our neighborhood, while still maintaining a safe work environment for ourselves and our staff.

Early in the pandemic, we teamed up with several other small local producers, including Triple Bottom Brewing, Weckerly’s, Third Wheel Cheese, Mycopolitan Mushrooms, and Lil Pop Shop to create Joy Box, a customizable care package of “essential non-essentials.”

The project is still going, and sells out regularly. It’s been successful largely because of low-cost ads on Facebook and local promotions on Instagram. We all keep in touch using Gmail, and use Google Docs to remotely manage shared data and track order processing. Then there’s video platforms, like Zoom and Google Meet, which let us interface with other Joy Box teams and collaborate on future products.

Digital platforms have also made it easy for us to donate a portion of our profits to 12 Plus, a Philadelphia education nonprofit that partners with public high schools to increase educational equity. Even more exciting, students from 12 Plus partner schools are getting placed in our workplaces, bridging cultures and community divides.

Credit: Courtesy Caphe Roasters

Now we’re concerned about losing easy access to these very tools and services because of government regulations.

This fall, when Congress held a hearing with the CEOs of leading technology industries, including those who make the platforms we’re depending on, the proceedings entirely lacked a small biz owner’s perspective. According to the Connected Commerce Council (3C), which examined COVID-19’s impact on small businesses, those that embraced digital tools the earliest expect 4x better revenue for 2020 compared to those who are generally skeptical of digital tools’ value.

As things start to open back up in Philadelphia, we’re going to keep these new tools in place. Digital advertising and online sales give small shops the resources to grow their business footprint, connecting local businesses with customers outside their day-to-day regulars.

Lawmakers and other political leaders should not forget the digital tools that have given our community a chance to adapt and survive.