CADILLAC — While many businesses in the area still are struggling to recover from the economic disruptions caused by COVID-19, others were able to benefit from the pandemic by adapting their operations to be more in line with how consumers are spending their money in the 21st Century.

Even before the coronavirus arrived in the U.S., Jason Towers, owner of Willow Market and Meats, and the attached Primos BBQ, said he noticed trends in the industry moving toward an increase in online ordering and a general preference for more convenient ways of purchasing items.

Given that the pandemic naturally made people wary of being in congested places, such as large grocery stores, the trends he noticed pre-COVID sped up significantly as more customers began ordering online and opting for curbside pickup.

"Getting food into people's hands was the most important thing," Towers said. "We followed that trend. We knew it was coming anyway, and that was the biggest industry dynamic that changed in the last year and a half."

Prior to being connected businesses, Primos was located in Cadillac West in a building that now is part of the Lake Cadillac Resort. Resort owner Michael Blackmer had purchased the old Marina Restaurant and approached Towers and his business partner Mike Yount about buying the building that housed Rosa Blanca and Primos BBQ. It was at that time Towers and Yount started looking for a new location to house their business. It didn’t take long before they settled on purchasing Willow Market and Meats, located at 916 S. Mitchell St., in early 2020.

Fortunately for their business model, Towers said they already were set up for pickup deliveries, so the pandemic affected them far less than it did others that rely more on in-person patronage.

"It probably helped us in some ways," Towers said of the pandemic. "I give all the credit to our staff. It isn't easy working in a hot kitchen with a mask on the whole time."

Willow did so well during the early months of the pandemic that they were able to offer their space to display products from several other businesses in the area, including Toy Town, The Sweet Shop, Annie's Baked Goods and Simply Delightful.

These partnerships emphasized what Towers says is the "hyper local first" strength of the products they offer at Willow, and while those businesses since have been able to return their items to their respective stores, Towers said other adjustments they made in response to the pandemic have become permanent features at Willow and Primos.

One of the things that Towers believes has made them more resilient in the face of tough times is the diversity of their products, ranging from food and beverage items to shrubs, trees, flowers and planting mulch.

"We're very much a one-stop shop," said Towers, who added that people uncomfortable going into big box stores turned to small specialty shops such as Willow for many of their daily needs during the pandemic.

"We tried to be what people needed during that time," Towers said.

Unlike many businesses that have had an increasingly difficult time finding employees following the arrival of the coronavirus, Towers said due to pandemic having a minimal effect on their operations, they were able to hold on to most of their original employees and not lose many to reduced hours or the allure of higher unemployment benefits.

Even though their business already was well suited to the takeout model, Towers said during the pandemic, they pivoted even more toward this type of service by expanding the number of takeout items they offer and the method through which customers are able to order those items, including using phone apps, their website, and through the online home delivery service DoorDash.

As dine-in and gathering restrictions began to ease off, Towers said requests for catered meals began to increase. Graduation open houses, weddings, company-sponsored meals for employees — Towers said their catering business has never been busier.

Also, with the expansion of an outdoor patio area and acquisition of a license that allows them to serve alcoholic drinks to diners (instead of only sealed containers that must be consumed offsite), Towers said they expect more in-person customers this summer. To entice people into the establishment over the summer months, Towers said they will be hosting live acoustic performers starting in July.

In addition, Towers said they'll be expanding their off-premises footprint by partnering with the organizers of the Cadillac Farmers Market to sell their items from a food truck a couple days of the week. He said they've been in discussions with Long Road Distillers, who are preparing to open their new location at the former site of Better Bodies Health and Fitness Center, to sell their items from there, as well.

For more information on Willow Market and Meats or Primos BBQ, call (231) 20468-2682 or go to www.willowmarket.com.

Cadillac News