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Seattle Bakery Owner On Her Online Pivot During Coronavirus Outbreak

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When I first spoke with Olga Sagan one month ago, the coronavirus epidemic was just getting going here in the U.S. At her bakery, Piroshky Piroshky in Seattle, business was down 50%.

OLGA SAGAN: We are really truly hoping for it to go up next week with people maybe, hopefully, calming down. But we are preparing for it to go down as low as 70%.

SHAPIRO: Well, in fact, business ground to a near halt, so Olga Sagan turned to the Internet to save Piroshky Piroshky. Beyond selling her own baked goods online, she created a hub for other small businesses, a website called Catch22Delivery. And Olga Sagan is back with us to talk about it.

Welcome back to the program.

SAGAN: Hi. It's nice to be back.

SHAPIRO: So this transformation was clearly born of necessity. How did you do it so quickly - become an umbrella operation for so many other small businesses?

SAGAN: It's a lack of sleep and dedication of my employees for two days and desperation for bringing jobs. It's out of desperation.

SHAPIRO: And, I guess, the idea is that instead of having a third-party vendor handle the transactions of online orders, you can do it yourself, which lets you keep your workers employed.

SAGAN: That's the idea. That's where it came from. It's - yeah. Third-party vendors are taking - you know, taking a big cut. And we had a robust website. And we - you know, we didn't have - it wouldn't allow us to have our people drive the orders and process our orders ourselves.

SHAPIRO: So have your employees taken on roles that they wouldn't have imagined doing as recently as a month ago, when you were just running a few bakeries?

SAGAN: Absolutely. I have my piroshki-making - right now, I'm looking at one of the employees who used to make piroshkies. Right now she's doing bookkeeping and logging those online sales in front of me in the office.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

SAGAN: (Laughter) Yes.

SHAPIRO: And does this feel sustainable? Like, is this something that could get you through the crisis if it goes on for months?

SAGAN: You know what? It does. We're absolutely embracing it, and it feels absolutely sustainable. And this is incredible. I did not realize how well third-party platforms are doing and how big of a business opportunity online is.

SHAPIRO: I'm so happy to hear that. Now, I know you have several locations in Seattle, but the original one is in Pike Place Market. And last time we talked to you, you said it felt really eerily quiet. What's it like these days?

SAGAN: It's still very, very quiet. The sales are close to 90% down, so it's close to nonexistent.

SHAPIRO: Wow. And so what are the small business owners - the, you know, flower vendors or fish sales people - talk about from day to day?

SAGAN: We are now pivoting into online sales. Online sales is our savior right now.

SHAPIRO: Everyone is.

SAGAN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

SAGAN: It's online sales.

SHAPIRO: You know, when you and I first talked on March 6, it seemed like Seattle would be far worse off than other American cities because it was kind of at the leading edge. And that has turned out not to be the case, so how are you feeling today?

SAGAN: I think it's because a lot of people are coming together here, and I think it's a power of collective, so a lot of ideas are being generated here, including the Catch22 idea and a lot of people jumping on board. And we are trying to go back to the basics and reminding people to bring - you know, coming back to small businesses, coming back to us.

SHAPIRO: Do you have any advice for the people in other cities that are suffering perhaps even worse than Seattle right now?

SAGAN: Absolutely. Go back to your - go back to basics. Go back to restaurants. Go back to your favorite places you do business with. Remember them. I mean, having online platform - it doesn't mean you need to stop shopping in your favorite businesses.

SHAPIRO: Olga Sagan, owner of the Piroshky Piroshky bakery chain in Seattle, I'm so glad to hear that you're keeping your head above water and doing well.

Thank you.

SAGAN: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.