When you’re approaching your first Thanksgiving season as a new grocery store owner, and there’s a shortage of pumpkin puree, what do you do? Make your own!, says Kristin Russell, co-owner of Savannah’s Brighter Day Natural Foods Market.
Kristin and her partner Brad Baugh purchased Brighter Day at the end of last year, some 18 years after she opened the coffee shop next door, The Sentient Bean.
A fair trade, community-driven coffee shop, The Sentient Bean will celebrate 20 years in business next year- one of Cafe Campesino’s longest standing customers. It has become well known not only for its 100% vegetarian food menu (which consistently features local, seasonal produce), but also as a gathering place for community expression.
Pre-covid, the Bean was hosting bi-monthly Open Mic nights, monthly Comedy Nights and weekly PsychoTronic Film nights (meant to screen obscure and/or underappreciated films selected by Savannah’s local PsychoTronic Film Society).
But long before the Bean opened its doors to become a “little corner of a lot of activity,” Brighter Day had been selling fresh produce, health supplements and organic foods on the south side of Forsyth Park for 23 years.
The previous owners, Janie and Peter Brodhead, opened the 800-square-foot natural food store when they were 24 years old and sold it to Kristin and Brad 41 years later.
In an interview with Savannah Now last November, the Brodheads expressed relief that the business they’d made their lives’ work would have a continued shot to thrive under Kristin and Brad’s leadership.
If learning to run a grocery store weren’t enough of a challenge, running two businesses during a global pandemic should be. But (lucky for all of us) Kristin seems to be doing just fine. She’s working to keep morale up, innovating to cut costs and create new products and continuing to tackle the complexities of grocery inventory.
We checked in on Kristin, the Bean and Brighter Day in the Q&A below.
Q&A with Kristin Russell of The Sentient Bean & Brighter Day
Cafe Camp: What’s an example of a “normal day” for you running these two businesses?
KR: I’m not sure there is a ‘normal day’:) A couple days a week when there are big deliveries I get to work at 5 am and spend the first several hours of the day checking in and stocking the deliveries. Beyond that- I bounce around a lot. The day-to-day running [of the business] is handled by the great staff, so I am free to put out fires and hopefully work on business development and new ideas. I spend a lot more time at Brighter Day these days, but I love to swing through Sentient throughout the day and make sure everything is going smoothly there. I enjoy doing the grunt work actually, so I try to pitch in wherever I see a need.
Cafe Camp: Why did you purchase Brighter Day?
KR: We purchased Brighter Day because we love having an independent grocery store in our neighborhood, and we wanted to be able to keep shopping there. We’re pretty heavily invested in this neighborhood, and Brighter Day is a big part of why we think it’s so great. We also loved the idea of owning another outlet for food with great potential for expanding options for local growers and producers. The potential symbioses between the two businesses is pretty exciting too.
Cafe Camp: Have you been able to benefit from any “economies of scale” by running two values-oriented food businesses next door to each other?
KR: For sure! Our cost of goods for the Bean menu items has gone down almost 5 percent this year, which is a big impact on the bottom line. Part of that too, however, is due to menu simplifications that are Covid related. We’ve also combined a lot of services (technology, security, linens, etc.), which has saved a little dough. There are still a ton of efficiencies that I am working on taking advantage of, but it’s slow going as I have so much to learn.
Cafe Camp: Have you experienced any “surprises”/ unanticipated challenges in running a grocery store?
KR: You mean besides a pandemic?! Lol. Juggling supply this year has been pretty tricky. Just when we seemed to be getting a more stable supply of certain products that went away during the beginning of the pandemic, the wildfires in California shut down another large section of our products.
I don’t know that it was unanticipated, but tracking the numbers of such a large and quickly changing inventory is more complicated than I realized, and it’s taking a long time for me to wrap my brain around it. Luckily, the great staff there keeps doing what they’ve been doing, and it seems to be working out okay, but I look forward to running a much tighter ship in the future.
Cafe Camp: Is Brighter Day stocking up for Thanksgiving meal-prep ?
KR: We are indeed! All of our frozen turkeys arrived last week so we had to run down product in our biggest freezer to make room for them. We get fresh turkeys, which have to be pre-ordered, just a few days before Thanksgiving. We also stock up on cranberries, gravy, baking supplies, and other Thanksgiving staples. This year there is a pumpkin puree shortage, so we’ve started making our own in the deli, and we’ve just added stuffing to the in-house mix too.
Cafe Camp: On the Brighter Day website, it says you offer Mail Order (in addition to in-store pick-up). Are you shipping nationwide?
KR: We do ship nationwide but only shelf-stable products. Mainly we ship supplements. We charge a $5 handling fee and shipping. People can fill out a form online, email or call us.
Cafe Camp: Covid! Anything you’d like to share? How is Sentient fairing? How has the coffee shop changed to survive?
KR: During the most extreme of the shutdowns, the coffee shop was down to 10 percent of our regular business, but we are now back to almost 75 percent, which is quite sustainable. We’ve made a lot of changes, and it will be interesting to see which ones stick. We have two teams of staff and try not to have too much cross over to reduce potential infection rates, and we all can’t wait for that to be over. We simplified the menu including, unfortunately, less super fresh produce as we couldn’t afford to lose too much of it in the beginning. I’m happy to say that is coming back. The biggest change is that we added online ordering. We’ve been requiring masks since the beginning, and for a while, it was a super pain to enforce, but now almost everyone is on board.
Cafe Camp: Morale- how are you keeping yours up? Are you traveling at all?
KR: Thankfully the weather has been amazing this year, and I’ve spent a ton of time outside and on the water here on this beautiful coast which has kept my morale up and consequently helped me keep the staff’s morale up. I’m generally not a very expressive person. I’ve been trying really hard to remember to thank everyone often for their hard work, patience, and great attitude. Bonuses- that helps morale too! I have managed to travel a bit, and I’m super grateful about that. It was strange and curtailed, but it was still a change of scenery.
Cafe Camp: What’s next? For you, for Sentient, for Brighter Day?
KR: We’re just barely coming out of survival mode, and we’re still poised to go right back into lockdown any moment, so it’s extremely hard to have much focus on ‘what’s next’, but……
Brighter Bean! We’ve launched our combined brand which we primarily plan to use as a food label. That effort has been the focal point of figuring out how the two businesses can help each other out.
Cafe Camp: Sustainability, Food and Savannah – You’ve been actively involved in Savannah’s sustainable food culture for more than 20 years (starting Sentient & Forsyth Farmers Market, now owning Brighter Day). How do you feel about Savannah & sustainability these days? Are people thinking about the impact of Climate Change more? Are sustainable food systems more supported now than in the past?
KR: I’m optimistic about Savannah’s sustainable food culture. I’d like to see change happening a lot faster, but patience has never been one of my virtues. The pandemic and the Western wildfires have put a welcome spotlight on the weaknesses of a food system that relies on so much transportation. I think a lot of people are ready and willing to increase their support of local food, so we’ve got to seize on this opportunity to keep everyone’s attention.
The bigger picture of resilient food systems as one part of the solution to climate change isn’t part of very many people’s narratives yet, but I think that consciousness is growing. That last question is a tricky one… Sustainable food systems are more supported now than in decades, but we are still super removed from our food in comparison to pre-WWII. I think the message that “how you eat is an important part of managing climate change” is growing.
Visit Savannah’s Sustainable Food Businesses
The Sentient Bean
13 East Park Avenue
Savannah, Georgia 31401
Brighter Day Natural Foods Market
1102 Bull Street
Savannah, Georgia 31401
Get your house-made Pumpkin Puree! ..and stuffing!