Rocky’s Market | Oakland, CA.
A neighborhood fixture, Rocky’s Market offers specialty groceries, prepared food, craft beer, fine wine, a coffee bar, and has recently expanded to a second location in Brooklyn Basin.
When did you start your business?
Two Local Girls (our café and prepared food business) started in December 2015 inside the market. We acquired Rocky’s in May of 2016.
What inspired you to start it?
We were driven to open Rocky’s by our mutual desire to create something wonderful together. So we took the leap!
What were some early challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
When we started, neither one of us had ever run one before; we’d never even worked in a grocery store before. So, we had a steep learning curve. Really the way we overcame a lot of the early challenges was just by working an unbelievable number of hours and training ourselves on the job.
What were you working on before the pandemic?
We were working on getting the new store ready to open at Brooklyn Basin. We were also working on getting our kitchen operations transferred to the new space inside Rocky’s BB.
How was your business doing before the pandemic?
Just before Coronavirus hit, we were starting to turn the corner to long-term profitability. We had recently restructured some debt, sales were up in both our market and our prepared food and catering business. And we were a month our two from opening our second store.
What effect did COVID have on your business in the beginning?
The early days of the pandemic were extremely tumultuous for all our business. The original market experienced a 250% growth in daily sales almost overnight. However, the prepared food business which also included a café and quite a bit of catering, all but dried up. Meanwhile, the process of getting the new store up and going became even more challenging than getting a new business going in normal times. We were stretched to the maximum for a couple of months, for sure.
What did you do?
The primary challenge for COVID was the uncertainty. It became very difficult week to week to predict what our business model would look like both from a sales perspective and an operation model. We spent a great deal of time researching and keeping up with best practices for dealing with the pandemic, and we believe we were among the first markets to implement hand washing, masking and distancing.
Probably the most challenging thing we had to do was managing personnel. We had to add almost 100% increase to payroll in the market. Close to a dozen new employees needed training and team integration amidst what was often a daily circus. At the same time, we had to contract the prepared foods business and hire a staff to open the new store the first week of May. A lot of what we did really centered around our team, keeping them safe and making sure we had the right staffing levels. We were working on getting the new store ready to open at Brooklyn Basin. We were also working on getting our kitchen operations transferred to the new space inside Rocky’s Brooklyn Basin.
“Advice? Make sure that the business you run always reflects the values you want to live by.
— Brady and Corinne
How have you pivoted?
We closed our café and shifted the personnel to become a quickly put together delivery and curbside pick-up service. Within a week we were handling 50 pick-up and deliveries a day. Within a month after the lockdown we had a basic website for ordering up and ready.
What’s on the horizon for your business?
We’re going to have to make some decisions very soon about the future of our delivery service. On a small scale it’s not a profitable model. We had rejected getting into delivery for the last 3 years and it wasn’t something we felt was the right fit for us. We also made the choice early on to provide it to the community for free. We’ll have to decide if there will continue to be a market for the service, for how long and whether we need to make a change to the economics.
I wish I knew better what was on the horizon for the market and the prep food business. Will revenue on the market side, which has been contracting steadily back down from the beginning of March, level off or will it continue back down to pre-COVID levels? Will the café make sense to re-open inside the old store?
Meanwhile, we are getting ready to open an outdoor, “social distance” dining space down on the waterfront in our new store. Still plenty on our plates.
Where do you see your business in the next year?
I suspect that a year from now we will have seen a huge amount of growth in the new store. The outdoor dining space seems to represent a great opportunity given the direction we see the market for restaurants headed. In addition, there are 1000+ new housing units scheduled to be built and available within walking distance of the store. The large public waterfront space directly adjacent to the store should be open as well.
For the older market, I’m planning for further contraction as other food options become available again and as customers begin to feel more comfortable shopping at larger stores they may have avoided at the peak. I think we will still have some online delivery/pick-up shopping options, but again it’ll depend upon what’s going on in the world.
I’m hoping to see growth in the prepared foods business back close to the pre-lockdown level. I don’t think we’ll see the catering or our small café come all the way back, but I think the growth of sales of prepared foods at the new market will compensate. We’re also adding more shelf stable items and marinated, cryovac meat products to the line, which should also help fuel the growth.
In the next two years?
In two years, I’m hoping we’ll be seeing sustainable long-term profitability across all business lines. We will also probably have dipped our toe into the water of selling our prepared foods to other markets beyond our own brick and mortal.
In the next five years?
Hopefully in five years we’ll have really expanded the size of our prepared operations and have 5-10 more markets distributing our products. We’re also approached pretty often with requests to open markets in other locations. I could see us being somewhere down the road to open a third store in either East or West Oakland.
How has ICA helped you on your small business journey?
Sadly, our journey on the ICA path was interrupted by the pandemic. Once the lockdown went into place, both of us were locked into 12 hour days 7 days a week for close to two months directly corresponding to the time of our cohort.
We have been really pleased with the way the ICA team has followed up with us offering both timely information and offers of assistance understanding the new landscape and also offering to help us find funding.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs running a business during this time?
It’s tough to say as the business landscape is so different depending on your industry. I think the same rules that applied pre-COVID are still valid: believe in yourself, work with passion, put in the time.
What’s one piece of advice that you’ve really cherished?
Make sure that the business you run always reflects the values you want to live by.
Shop at Rocky’s and order online at rockysmarket.com. This article is one from a series of profiles featuring entrepreneurs from Cohort Five of the ICA Accelerator.