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Customer Spotlight: How Way Fruit Farm Serves Customers During a Pandemic

We recently interviewed Megan Coopey of Way Fruit Farm, located in Centre County.  Way Fruit Farm includes a retail facility where they sell fruit, seasonal local vegetables, grocery items as well as have a bakery and deli. Megan is the sixth generation on the farm, and during the interview shared about their operation and how Way Fruit Farm has adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Listen to the full podcast episode with Megan here.

First, could you tell our listeners about Way Fruit Farm and its rich history in central Pennsylvania? 
I am fortunate to be six generation on the family farm. We did not always have fruit, as a lot of farms started as subsistence farms, including the Ways when our family moved to this valley. However, we quickly became fruit-focused when there was a wedding gift of a thousand apple trees given to one of the Way descendants. So that was how everything got started -  as a wedding gift and then nudge in that direction, and the rest as they say is history. 

Fruit continues to be our main focus. We also have pumpkins and sweet corn, and we do a lot of retail sales. In fact, I would say a majority of our sales are retail. We do some wholesale here and there. But mostly we are focused on our local community, visitors to the area, whether it be Penn State students and alumni and football traffic or just people to the region. 

When my husband and I moved back to our farm, we did an expansion of our retail facility. That facility also now houses a bakery and a deli, where we serve fresh pies and breads and more on the weekdays. We also offer a lunch menu and a weekend breakfast menu for our local community. We get a really nice response to that because we have some suburbs of the State College area close to us. 

That's a little bit about Way Fruit Farm, what we do and where our focus is right now, as we've continued to grow and adapt with each generation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all of us, but especially those involved in agriculture and retailing food. Tell us about how the pandemic impacted your business and how you adapted to the new environment.
The pandemic of course threw us as a surprise sort at first as well, just like it did with the general population, even worldwide. It took us a while to wrap our heads around what was happening, but throughout the entire time we remained open to serve people.

As I said, we previously expanded our facility to almost be a grocery store, with a local flare. We have the milk, bread and eggs that people want from local farmers and dairies right next door to us. We grow all of the fruits, so we have that almost year-round. We press our own cider, we bake our own bread and we have pies. 

We became the grocery store that our local community was coming to in order to avoid leaving the house, which obviously was recommended for a while.

A lot of people wanted to go somewhere like us, that is a little bit smaller and more focused on safety, whether it be food safety or cleanliness. That was really a big deal to our community in a time where people were just trying to find a good quality source of food that they didn't have to go to a big box store in town for. We shifted ourselves from just being a grocery for some to being a grocery for even more folks in our area by also expanding into a delivery service.

Each winter we take time to do a lot of projects. About a year before the pandemic hit, we had set up an online store on our website. One of our full-time employees took that on as her job, and that winter she took pictures of all of the products we have and everything inputted into a system that we could then put online so that people could shop online. We didn't do shipping at the time because a lot of our objects are heavy and the shipping costs is so much. We focused on offering a local delivery service, which during pandemic became very sought after, but also then developed into an order online, get curbside contactless pickup. My husband had this impetus that grocery shopping was going towards more of an online presence.

So when the pandemic hit, that allowed us to more easily expand into that online service to offer more frequent deliveries and to a little bit wider area. We bought a new delivery vehicle in order to offer that more often and with multiple delivery drivers. We kept growing into that area and that allowed us to stay open.

With this pandemic, one of the hardest thing we've found is when you hear stories from folks, it was very much feast and famine as far as business goes. 

We do have a café. We serve lunch every day, offer to-go dinners and have weekend breakfast. The café, of course, suffered greatly during the pandemic because no restaurant was open except for to-go. In my opinion, pancakes are the worst breakfast you'll ever eat to-go because no matter how close you live, by the time you get home, they are cold and not very appealing. So to go sounds great in theory, but when you're in the trenches, you realize most people don't want certain things to-go.

Although our café may have suffered, our deli, for example, probably tripled to quadrupled in business. We weren't serving sandwiches, but they needed something to feed their family when they were home all the time. Lots of families wanted soup or other items from our deli for quick at-home meals. 

We were able to take that portion of our business, use it to serve the community and repurpose our staff. That was a big deal because we did not want to lay off any of our staff. We refocused and repurposed everyone into either online order pullers or working in the deli, even if that wasn’t normally their role. 

Among the most difficult challenges are sometimes the greatest bright spots. What do you feel are some of the silver linings that came from the pandemic?
Our online service was in its fledgling stages when this hit. We had it all set up, but we would just deliver to our local community, which for us is State College, Bellefonte, parts of Altoona and Tyrone. We typically did four or five deliveries a day. One small car load it would go out, which at that time was literally my uncle who just likes to keep himself busy in his retirement would do the deliveries. 

We now have regulars who order a couple of hundred dollars worth of groceries every week, because they've now realized that even if they are going out and about and doing more shopping on their own as well, that they liked the quality and they liked the convenience of what we're offering. We've been able to expand that area in order to serve more people. Which means that for us, we are able to expand our customer base and maintain some of them simply because we were able to have quality products for them in a very stressful time and situation where a lot of grocery stores were running out of things.

I feel like the silver linings were sort of few and far between. When you're in the midst of it you don't see them, but as we've come out of it, we've realized that we've gained customers. We've realized that when you flourish in a stressful situation, it actually bolsters your reputation within the community and people are more willing to advertise for you by word of mouth and to give you a try because they've heard good things. It became a really good form of us getting out into the community, sort of unpaid advertising if you will. 

We were able to touch parts of our community that maybe we hadn't tapped into before and serve them well. Now I feel like even more people have a focus on local, high quality foods than even what did before in this area.

We’re not out of this pandemic yet. But with the vaccines now being distributed, that brings a lot of hope to a return to ‘normal’ at some point in the future.  What do you see for the future of Way Fruit Farm?
We're always looking ahead and trying to figure out what's next. Nothing is set in stone for us because like you said, this is not over. 

We've had a restaurant open and shut back down about four times now, 50% capacity then 25%. I don't know when we'll go back to 100%. 

What it's forced us to do is to continue to step forward, maybe just a little bit faster. We've been looking at an online app so that people can utilize our café, and order online with curbside pickup. That is one area we realized that we were deficient in during this crisis to be able to serve prepared food or hot food in a timely fashion. Grubhub is irrelevant since we are in a rural area, and it's just not a feasible option. So we're going to try to become our own Grubhub, if you will.

There are just so many other things. We're looking to continue to maintain that customer base so that we can continue to expand our staff and provide income for more people in our community. We have fantastic staff that stuck with us the whole time. We've hired, during and after the pandemic. We've realized just what a blessing we can be to the community by just offering some good, quality, decent paying jobs. To be able to continue to expand our business allows us to help others, and that's great. 

Those are some things we're sort of looking at, but you just never know. Anything can happen at this point. We try to remain open to the possibilities, keep rolling with the punches and working to the best of our ability.

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