Café owners dish up new customer services in response to pandemic

Ashley Charlotte Mason inherited her middle name from her grandmother. Grandmother Charlotte also gave her granddaughter a love of cooking and baking, along with a batch of favorite recipes.

Ashley made having her own restaurant her life’s goal. From her childhood on up, she and her family would talk over where the restaurant should be, how it should be decorated and what should be on the menu. She graduated from the Johnson and Wales University culinary school with a bachelor’s degree in baking, pastry arts and food service management and a minor in entrepreneurship. After college, Ashley worked her way up the kitchen career ladder in other restaurants to get more hands-on experience.

Then the owners of the former Warm Springs Diner in Berkeley Springs decided to sell, building and all.

Ashley teamed with two business partners with commitment and essential skills. Treasurer John Mason, her father, is an accountant who accrued more than 30 years of professional experience before retiring. Secretary Kim Mason, her mother, has a background in marketing. Ashley serves as company president.

Café owners dish up new customer services in response to pandemic

Sweet startup

Together they formed a new business, Charlotte’s Café in Berkley Springs. They developed business and financial plans and secured a loan.

Business Coach Mary Hott, West Virginia Small Business Development Center (WVSBDC), worked as a guide with John on the financial projections and loan recommendations, and with Kim and Ashley on market research and business plan review.

“When the Mason family approached me about their idea for starting their new business, I was thrilled for several reasons,” said Hott. “First, the old Warm Springs Diner had been family owned, many decades earlier. To have another local family revitalize a core business in the heart of their community speaks exactly to how small businesses anchor and support a community.

“On top of that, the Masons were a coach’s dream team: Ashley the daughter had the product/service/delivery experience. Her dad, John, came with a professional finance and accounting background, and mom, Kim, had education and work experience in marketing. Together they are the three main anchors of a business.”

Charlotte’s Café opened Dec. 30, 2019. The café was open six days a week and busy every day. The menu included homemade breakfasts and desserts, chicken corn soup based on an old family recipe and a new chicken salad wrap with a pickle twist.

Café owners dish up new customer services in response to pandemic

Economy turns sour

Then the news began to spread about COVID-19, a disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“We started researching what restaurants in bigger cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta were doing to stay open, but we didn’t think our small town was really going to be impacted that way,” Ashley said. “Then our food representative from FoodPRO, Billie Jo Howett, said that the surrounding cities were starting to be affected, and that we should prepare for it to be here in the next couple of weeks.”

Their WVSBDC Business Coach Mary Hott remained in touch.

“I happened to know deferrals were being offered on certain types of existing loans,” said Hott. “I called up the owners and said, ‘Hey, make sure you check with your bank about the deferral available on that loan.’ That provided some relief right at the start.”

Ashley agreed.

“We kept in contact with Mary this whole year,” she said. “Mary made sure we knew what SBA programs were being offered and how to apply. We discussed our plans, and she provided some insights on what some other restaurants were doing.”

Café owners dish up new customer services in response to pandemic

Adapting the recipe for success

“Morgan County is a retirement community,” Ashley said. “Many customers were considered high risk for COVID-19, or concerned about going out. After people ate what was in their pantries and freezers, they would need to restock, but grocery stores were having difficulty filling the needs. We saw the gap and developed a plan to fill it.”

Open at peak hours. The Mason partners identified times when customers came into the restaurant and reduced their regular schedule to support those peak hours.

Deliver what customers want. Charlotte’s Café introduced free delivery for minimum $30 orders, six months earlier than was proposed in their original business plan.

“We started doing family meals for take-out, something we had never planned to do,” said Kim. “At Easter, we provided a special family meal. The response exceeded our expectations.”

Support your customers and community. The business also partnered with local organizations to provide meals for local hospital employees and cookies for first responders.

Be available online. Although customers were staying in, the business made it easier to reach out online. They added a page to the café’s website about specials and a link to the café’s Facebook page, updated each day with daily specials.

Charlotte’s Café has another factor working in its favor: the community itself.

“We are very lucky. People have been generous and kept us afloat,” said Kim. “Berkeley Springs is a small West Virginia town where everyone is nice and helpful. It is wonderful to live in a community like this, especially in times like these.”