We have all seen—and frequented—those intrepid restaurants that, at the onset of this horrible pandemic, pivoted quickly and started focusing exclusively on take out. While these small businesses had to scale back operations significantly, it at least allowed them to survive.

Impressive, yes—but what about the restaurant that pivoted to a vending machine?

A vending machine? Yep, you heard me right.

Pix Pâtisserie is “a little slice of France that landed in Portland [Oregon] in 2001.” Pix was a popular restaurant employing 20 people, but when the pandemic hit, owner Cheryl Wakerhauser knew she had no choice but to rethink her business model. 

She did so in an incredibly unique way: 

Wakerhauser bought a 20-year-old refurbished vending machine and stocked it with her gorgeous desserts, macarons, and other high-demand commodities, like toilet paper, fresh eggs, and sourdough starter. 

Today, the 126-slot “Pix-O-Matic” is stocked with 50 different items from local food artisans, all available for purchase 24/7. A disco ball, festive lights, and party music greet customers as they select their treats, all in a contactless, credit card-only transaction. The Pix-o-Matic was a hit from the start and, in fact, has become a hot Portland mini excursion, attracting lines of people up to two hours long in search of a bite of decadence and fun. 

Image credit: http://www.pixpatisserie.com/pixomatic

Seeing the success of this pivot born in an emergency, Wakerhauser is now expanding on her newfound business model by hosting Pix-O-Matic pop-ups so other local restaurants and artisans can sell their foods and beverages. 

As a result: 

  • Pix was able to cut overhead dramatically (it’s just Wakerhauser and one other employee running the business now). 
  • She now also nets more income than she did running the brick-and-mortar restaurant.
  • And Wakerhauser’s time has been freed up to such an extent that she has been able to finish writing her latest cookbook.

So yes, bold pivots can work.

Time to rethink your business?

The novel coronavirus has changed almost everything, and this is especially true for the millions of small businesses across the country, indeed, around the globe. The sad fact is that many of these businesses will not make it through this pandemic.

But it need not be so. The proof is in the chocolate pudding. Pix made its money back on the cost of the vending machine in three days.

Or what about The Snapbar? The Snapbar is a Seattle-based photobooth company. Last year, it was on Inc.’s list of the 500 fastest growing companies in America. But this year? This year, the entire business model got, well, locked down. Events requiring photo booths are not happening again anytime soon.

To keep his business and team going, owner Sam Eitzen brainstormed 50 potential pivots for his business. A week later, he and his team completely changed their business model, launching a brand new product: “Keep Your City Smiling” gift boxes. Eitzen’s’s team sourced local Seattle-made items, like coffee roasters, candles, and art, for their gift boxes and began to market them.

Within a few weeks, they had almost 1,000 orders. Today, everyone is still employed, and Snapbar is looking to expand its local gift box business into more cities.

The key to their pivot was that the Snapbar team looked at what they were good at and used that as a springboard. They had a creative team, others were good at logistics and shipping, and they had connections in the corporate world. “As a team, we decided that we would create gift boxes packed with local items crafted by small businesses in the Seattle area,” says Eitzen. 

If Snapbar can completely redo its business on the fly, if a French bakery like Pix Pâtisserie can completely rethink its business model, then you can too. 

Business pivot examples

It’s kind of like that movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, The Edge. In that movie, a small plane carrying the two men crashes in the Alaskan outback. They have no provisions, no tools, save a switchblade and a small book Hopkins brought along called, “How to Survive in the Wild.”

It’s a good thing they had it too, because soon the two men are being stalked by a Grizzly. 

Baldwin’s character is sure they will die at the hands of the bear. But not Hopkins. His book has a chapter entitled, “How to Kill a Bear.” He is convinced they can do it. “What one man can do, another can do!” Hopkins bellows at Baldwin. “If someone else figured out how to kill a bear in the woods, then we can too.” 

In the end, they prevail. What one man or woman can do, another can do.

For inspiration, here’s how real small businesses across several industries have pivoted to counteract the pandemic:

Business type Pivot ideas
Restaurants  – Full-time catering
– Online cooking classes
Clothing companies – Manufacture or source and sell masks
– Sell on eBay and Amazon
Events businesses – Host weekly webinars
– Create an online summit
Creative businesses – Sell on marketplaces like Upwork and Fiverr
– Use content marketing to drive traffic
Fitness studios – YouTube video series
– Private e-coaching
Real estate agents – Virtual home tours
– DIY home inspection classes
Local markets – Guaranteed 1-hour home delivery
– Sell gardening supplies

Have you heard of other great pivot ideas? Tweet them at us @GustoHQ, and we’ll add them to our “pivot table.”

How to pivot your business

If other entrepreneurs have figured out how to pivot their plans in the pandemic, you can too. Here’s how:

1. Brainstorm: Either alone or with your team, you need to have one of those “anything goes” brainstorming sessions. Consider every possible idea, no matter how crazy. Snapbar launched a business that had zero to do with photobooths. 

Thinking big and expansively can work. 

2. Rely on your resources. Leveraging your existing assets and resources is key. As you begin to think about new ideas for your business, make sure that they are ones that are natural extensions of what you are doing now.

For example, Uber recently launched an on-demand “Work Hub” for its drivers who have been sidelined by the quarantine. Uber drivers can connect with other Uber platforms like Uber Eats, Uber Freight ,and Uber Works, as well as companies that use Uber’s platform like McDonald’s and FedEx. 

Uber’s Work Hub has been successful because it leverages Uber’s existing assets. 

3. Think digital. Needless to say, having an in-person, retail store right now is incredibly challenging. As such, to the extent your pivot and new profit center can be a digital, online one, the better.

  • My yoga studio has gone 100% online.
  • Real estate agents are now offering contactless, virtual 3D tours of homes.
  • Liquor stores are offering online mixology classes.

If you can recreate your actual business digitally, great—but if not, then it’s time to expand online (which you have probably been meaning to do anyway.) For instance, if you offer skilled services, consider selling on a site like Upwork. Or, if you sell goods, create an e-store and start to sell on your website, or Amazon, eBay, Craigslist, etc.

4. Test and go. Right now, there isn’t a whole lot of room for error. So let me suggest that you test out your new idea(s) on a small scale first, sans the risk of spending a lot of money, reputation, or goodwill. Once you discover the winning idea, then you can roll it out big.

Can you do it? Of course. Remember—what one man or woman can do, another can do!

Steve Strauss Steve Strauss is a lawyer, speaker, and USA Today small business columnist. He's the best-selling author of 17 books, including The Small Business Bible.
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