Usually the secret to success is to think outside of the box, or so the saying goes.
But for Sebastopol businesses, the first step to successfully pivoting from shelter-in-place to business-as-usual came in a cardboard box. The Sebastobox, to be specific. The box’s tagline, “All your favorite things,” says it all.
The Sebastobox is a filled with sentimental treats from the cafes and stores around Sebastopol.
The box is the brainchild of Laura Hagar Rush. It's a side-gig for Rush, whose day job is being editor of Sonoma West Times & News.
The goal of Sebastobox is two-fold: to provide income for small local merchants during the shut-down and to provide solace for community members sheltering in place, who like Rush, are missing their old lives.
Solace and fun in a box
Jerry and Deborah Kermode, who live off Bodega Highway, have been married for 50 years, are small business owners, have been feeling the isolation of the past two months. They received an email about Sebastobox from a mutual friend and thought the idea was great.
Jerry ordered one for Mother’s Day. The first Sebastobox, which cost $45, included coffee beans from Retrograde coffee, scones from Patisserie Angelica, beeswax candles and Sonoma County Spring Wildflower Honey from Beekind, chocolates from Sonoma Chocolatiers and a mini-bouquet of roses from Rush’s backyard, where she has 200 rose bushes.
“The roses were beautiful,” Jerry Kermode said. “They arrived in a milk bottle and were just so special. I was really happy with it.”
A special Mother’s Day version (Sebastobox: The Mother’s Day Edition) sold for $145 and included a $100 gift certificate to one of several local stores in town.
“We received it while our son, who lives in Oregon, was on the phone with us,” Deborah said. “It would have been fun to receive something like this on a regular Mother’s Day but it was extra special to receive it now in the middle of this stuff that’s going on.”
The importance of small business
Rush knows how important small businesses are to the life of a community.
“Small businesses are the life blood of small communities like Sebastopol,” Rush said. “When the pandemic hit and every small business in town was forced to close up shop, I knew we were headed for an economic tailspin.”
She ran the idea of Sebastobox by Rei Blaser at the Sebastopol Downtown Association and Linda Collins at the Chamber of Commerce, then started talking to local merchants, who were enthusiastic about the idea.
“I loved the idea,” said Danielle Connor, co-owner of Retrograde Coffee Roasters. “We were, of course, stoked to be involved.”
Retrograde closed its doors March 17 right before the county’s shelter-in-place orders went into effect and Connor has been ferociously retooling business plans to keep generating revenue for the local shop that employs 17. The coffee shop tried delivering beans for two weeks before finding the practice unsustainable.
Enter the Sebastobox.
“The Sebastobox is just a great way to keep people connected for those who are receiving them, of course, but also for those of us whose products are included,” Connor said. “My whole social life is Retrograde and the café. I really miss seeing families and people come in.”
Part of the larger plan
The idea of Sebastobox didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was the outgrowth of an app that Rush has been developing to help small local businesses and small newspapers compete more effectively in a global online marketplace.
She’s also working on a related project, thegroceryproject.org, which helps small local markets sell groceries online for curbside pick-up or delivery during the pandemic. She’s currently working with Community Market in Sebastopol to offer a box of groceries, designed by the nutritionist at the Ceres Community Project, that people can order online and pick up curbside or have delivered to their home. That box is tentatively set to cost $160 and will be available next week. Willowside Meats also is offering “The Carnivore Box” on the site, a week’s worth of meat for $50.
The shared theme of all these projects is to give the small local businesses a leg up in a market increasingly dominated by distant internet behemoths like Amazon.
“The big stores have Instacart and Amazon/WholeFoods, and I didn’t want people to get used to ordering from those and forget about their local markets and stores when the pandemic ended,” she said.
“Times like these force you to evolve,” Rush said. “That’s what the app is about and that’s what Sebastobox is about — using modern technology to preserve what’s best about our small town.”
Find Sebastobox at thegroceryproject.org.