Cambridge Local First

Surviving coronavirus as a small business: Michael Kanter of Cambridge Naturals

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By Lina Cho (CLF), originally published in Cambridge Day on July 22

Michael Kanter, co-founded the Cambridge Naturals health and wellness store in 1974. (Photo: Cambridge Naturals)

Michael Kanter, of the store Cambridge Naturals in Porter Square, is sick of hearing the terms “new normal” and “pivot.”

Kanter founded the natural wellness and health store as Cambridge Health Foods in 1974 with his wife, Elizabeth Stagl; now their daughter and son-in-law are part of the business. That long local history didn’t shield the store from an economic downturn resulting from the coronavirus.

When people first grew alarmed about coronavirus, Cambridge Naturals sales saw a significant spike. Sales “far exceeded” even December profits, when the store expects to see holiday business more than double a typical month, Kanter said.

“We were going like crazy for about two weeks, almost to the point of distraction. People were buying like mad,” Kanter said, for “pretty much the whole range of everything we sold, but in particular a lot of supplements that help people stay healthy, help deal with immune issues and things like that.”

Around March 15, Kanter and his family made the difficult decision to close the physical store – in large part because being a health and wellness retailer, the customer base often includes people who are sick.

“We closed our doors, first for a week or so. We were trying to figure out what to do,” Kanter said.

Soon afterward, the state ordered nonessential retailers to shut their doors completely to walk-in traffic.

Pivoting

Despite his dislike for the word, Kanter said his business has had to “pivot” since its bricks-and-mortar closing, instead offering products online, through curbside pickup and delivery.

But nothing quite replaces the experience of a physical store.

“We’re not set up for [selling online] as well as some. We’re not a warehouse,” Kanter said. “Customers come in and find things. They say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you carried that chocolate, I love that!’ or ‘That’s an amazing tea.’ And all this can’t happen in the same way in a store that’s closed.”

The store saw up to 700 visitors and 500 sales a day before coronavirus hit Massachusetts; average profit levels haven’t been met since closing in mid-March.

“We’ve been hit hard, and lost many, many hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales,” Kanter said.

The new normal

The Porter Square store is now open for limited hours, with masks required to shop inside, and the family is exploring more safe and sustainable business methods.

But the economy of Cambridge is tied to its universities. Just before their spring breaks, students were sent home to continue learning remotely. Harvard plans to provide housing for only up to 40 percent of its undergraduates for the coming semester, Kanter noted. Among its undergrads, MIT plans to bring back only seniors. And Lesley University, which has a campus in Porter Square, expects to see students for only a handful of classes that can’t be handled online, such as art studios, and will have no residence halls open, director of communications John Sullivan said Wednesday.

That’s not the only way the population of Cambridge has decreased, Kanter believes.

“A whole lot of people in the area have left town,” Kanter said. “I’ve heard as many as several thousand people have left the Greater Cambridge area for their homes on Cape Cod or Maine or Vermont or wherever else. So I believe there are fewer people in the area, and that’s going to affect our likely success.”

Despite everything, Kanter sees the pandemic as a chance to “force” positive change.

“Part of me wishes I was 20 or 30 years older, so I know I’d be through with this whole mess a lot sooner,” he said. “And part of me wishes I was 20 or 30 years younger and I could really see this positive transformation we’re going to make here, and then I’m going to watch this happen and it’ll be the joy of my lifetime.”

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