They're as familiar as bake sales in school hallways: boxes of chocolate bars sold by students to fund a special trip, catalogs of toys and treats whose sale supports the school choir -- and that one co-worker who always asks you to contribute to his kid’s fundraiser.
But those school fundraisers, like so many things in the past year, have fallen victim to the pandemic, putting the companies that run them at risk. But at least one local company – the Melville-based Miss Chocolate – is weathering some nearly impossible conditions.
After losing 60 percent of its business this year and laying off the vast majority of its staff, Miss Chocolate, which has been in existence since 1968, is shifting its focus to virtual fundraisers, shipping directly to buyers or offering curbside pickup. The hope, said Larry Hirschheimer, a co-owner, is that its reputation and flexibility of its employees will allow them to stay afloat long enough to get to a place where the trappings of the pre-COVID world return.
"It’s run like a family business," said Hirschheimer, who runs the business with partners Ron Kaiser and Lou Nagy. "We’ve helped schools raise millions of dollars – $3 1/2 million to $4 million every year … and we’re trying to do the right thing, both for the employees and the customers."
What did the beginning of the pandemic look like for your business?
Well, schools closed in mid-March, so it pretty much took us from running at full speed in the spring and getting ready to deliver Easter, Passover and spring sales to laying everyone off [almost 100 employees] by that Friday the 20th. We basically shut down. [Then by] April, we were delivering to homes, dropping off individual orders with a very limited staff. … We crept along hoping schools would open back up at some point in May, but [then] there wasn’t a return to in-school learning.
How did you deal with the uncertainty the following summer?
We were gearing up in late June to return to what we normally do, which would be school sales. We sent out brochures and catalogs with the assumption the kids would come back after Labor Day. Somewhere in mid-August, you realize: I'm not so sure that we're all returning to school. You know, we also do business in New Jersey, Connecticut and New York and pretty much in the middle of August said they could either do hybrid, they could do remote, or any combination. A lot of the schools basically did remote, and the city kept waffling.
How did all this affect business?
We pivoted again right around Labor Day, [with a lot] of the schools doing remote online shopping. We always had it, but it was only seven to 10% of our sales, and now it’s 90%. Unfortunately, 60% of our [normal] customers didn’t do anything. We went from serving 1,000 schools last year to 400. … Last year, we worked seven days a week from Columbus Day till just before Christmas. Now, we work Monday to Friday, and it's at a very limited amount of people. This year, max, we had 15 people working.
What have been some of the financial ramifications?
Well, take candy bars. Kids walk around with a box [to raise money for things like senior dues or graduation] – either World’s Finest, our private label chocolate candy bar, or Hershey $2 candy bars – and that’s basically grinded to a halt. We went from selling a half-million dollars worth of candy bars last year to $20,000 this year.
Your company has been in business for so long. Do you think you're capable of surviving this?
I think we are. And I think we are for a couple of reasons. One, the people who work here were willing to adjust their work schedules. We had to reduce some salaries. Hourly people, we reduced their hours and we were able to call back some people. And our landlord, Anthony Racanelli of Racanelli Realty [in Commack] has been very, very good to us, giving us a 40 percent discount [on rent] until the end of May. And we did receive a PPP loan of $175,000.
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