This article is part of Owning the Future, a series on how small businesses across the country are coping with the coronavirus pandemic.
Greg Boehm recognized early how serious the coronavirus might be. He was flying from New York to Florida to visit family on March 5.
“I could see global travel was impacted,” he said. “It was the unknown, and the unknown is never good for bars and restaurants.”
And that meant it certainly would not be good for Mr. Boehm’s business, Cocktail Kingdom, which designs, manufactures and sells professional barware online to restaurants and bars globally.
And 76 percent of Cocktail Kingdom’s sales are to businesses, which were no longer operating because of the pandemic.
“We closed Cocktail Kingdom on Friday, March 13, and at that time pretty much instantly decided to do an about-face,” said Mr. Boehm, founder and chief executive.
First, he had to ensure that the 52 staff members, including those who work in the Bronx warehouse and salespeople nationwide — were safe and set up for work at home.
Mr. Boehm had moved from Manhattan to his cabin in Sullivan County, New York, and spent intense days talking with central employees. And since the internet wasn’t great, “we lived on WhatsApp,” he said.
They quickly concluded that they had to focus more on selling to consumers, which meant a major shift in how the company viewed itself.
“We are a company that sells professional barware to professional bartenders, so we had to abandon that,” he said. In the home consumer market, the barware is often as much about what the tools look like as how they function, he added, “and we’re all about function.”
“I didn’t want to compete with other people selling on price or style. I think our barware looks great, but first and foremost it has to work well when used by a professional bartender on a busy Saturday night.”
And while Cocktail Kingdom is a leader in professional barware, there is competition everywhere for the amateur mixologist.
But there really was not an option. And the good news was that even before the pandemic, alcohol sales to home users — what is known as off-premise sales — had been growing for years.
While beer, wine and spirit off-premise sales have all increased since 2017, spirit sales grew the most, by more than 4 percent every year, except in 2018, when it increased by 2.6 percent, according to the market research company Nielsen Global Connect.
And making a cocktail at home is a big part of that growth.
“The mixology trend has been around for quite some time,” said Brandy Rand, chief operating officer for IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. It started in the late 1990s with the return of the cocktail bar, and it didn’t hurt that the women in the TV show “Sex and the City” loved their cosmopolitans.
And from 2007 to 2015, when “Mad Men,” the TV series about the advertising industry of the 1950s and ’60s, was on the air, Google searches for the classic old-fashioned cocktail, which were consumed regularly on the show, rose steadily, according to an IWSR analysis.
That era also included the creation of Tales of the Cocktail, an annual trade show and festival in New Orleans, and the rise of celebrity mixologists. Like the home-cooking trend, people took to mixing cocktails as a serious hobby, and they realized they could make a great drink at home much cheaper than buying one at a restaurant, Ms. Rand said.
Social media accelerated the fad as people posted their fancy drinks and wanted some good-looking barware to go along with it, said Paul Clarke, executive editor of Imbibe Magazine, a drinks publication.
That was the world Cocktail Kingdom became extremely interested in, especially as the company watched its sales dip from the end of March to the beginning of April by 80 percent. That was brutal for a company that has had steady low double-digit growth year to year since it opened in 2009, Mr. Boehm said. As a private company, it does not release its annual revenues.
“This was a complete 180 for us,” he said of turning to the consumer market. So, the first thing he did was try to find influencers on social media, spending “hours and hours going through Instagram and Facebook to see who were most likely to understand our brand.”
Some, it turned out, were bartenders, who were focusing on social media while out of work. Mr. Boehm said the company sent gifts to influencers and received enthusiastic responses from many, some of whom wanted to promote the barware to their viewers.
That helped bring in sales and raise morale because by then, many of Cocktail Kingdom’s workers had to take a pay cut.
The company also began designing and selling T-shirts on its website to benefit the bars the company works with; the T-shirt sales raised $26,000 for the bar workers. Word about the T-shirts went out on the company’s email list, Mr. Boehm said, which has almost 70,000 names, and the bars’ social media sites, driving traffic to Cocktail Kingdom’s website.
He also noticed that a five-piece cocktail set, which sells for $99 to $159, became the company’s best seller. Sales for the set skyrocketed in April and May.
More plans are in the works. Mr. Boehm hopes to partner with local wine bars and liquor stores to present Zoom classes teaching people about spirits and cocktail-making, which would, of course, feature barware from Cocktail Kingdom.
“We’re thinking what we can do to create an experience at home,” he said.
Mr. Boehm owns five cocktail bars in the East Village and West Village, a Manhattan showroom, and the franchise Miracle, which are Christmas-theme pop-up cocktail bars that appear around the world.
When the bars or festival will be running again is anyone’s guess, he said. But web sales continue to do well — just 16 percent down from the same time last year, but with 80 percent to the consumer market. All staff members are back up to 100 percent pay and no one has been laid off.
And despite the troubled times, Mr. Boehm decided to continue the tradition of an annual introduction of a new product and in May started the campaign for Overlord knives, which are mainly for professional bartenders.
“I was hiking in the woods and thought, ‘Let’s move forward instead of treading water.’”
Sales for the knives have generated almost as much revenue as Cocktail Kingdom’s last major product introduction, he said.
And although the focus of the business will still be on selling to bars and restaurants when they reopen, he has learned a few things by being forced to change course.
“In the past, I said no to things that weren’t a perfect fit,” Mr. Boehm said. “One of my tips for others during this time, is, don’t be too proud to try something you said no to in the past. I found myself looking for ways to say yes to every business opportunity because I wanted to increase sales and make sure my staff had jobs. And some of these relationships can be pretty bright for the future.”
Be open to ideas you’ve rejected before. They might work this time.
Look for complementary businesses with which you can partner. That can provide new products or services.
Offer classes, interviews, shows or other experiences virtually. It’s a way to drive people to your website.