Small businesses were suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic. Northeastern came up with a way to help.

Fernando Rosas pulls freshly-baked bread from the oven.
A Northeastern consult-a-thon provided Fernando Rosas with promising ideas for his East Boston bakery, which has been struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Fernando Rosas and his sister, Margarita, had been working and saving for more than a decade to launch their bakery restaurant in March 2019. Driven by sales of pandebono (Colombian cheese bread), churros, and tres leches cake, their East Boston business appeared to be turning the corner in 2020. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

“From March until November, I turned the bakery into a convenience store because there was no foot traffic,” says Rosas, who ran a construction company in El Salvador before moving to the United States in 2006. “We had to let employees go. My sister and myself were working 90 hours a week and we didn’t earn any salary. That’s how bad it was.”

Their bakery restaurant, La Casa Del Pandebono, wasn’t the only small business that was struggling in East Boston, a  community near Boston’s Logan International Airport. The problems were witnessed firsthand by East Boston resident Julia Ivy, an executive professor and faculty director in international management at Northeastern. Over a three-day weekend in March, Ivy put together a virtual event that connected four small businesses—a hair salon, a gym, an eco-friendly cleaning service, and Rosas’ bakery—with young volunteer consultants who offered suggestions to help attract new customers and bring the community together.

The event, called Make Your East Boston Case Consult-a-thon, addressed problems the businesses were facing that went beyond COVID-19. The neighborhoods of East Boston have been gentrifying over the past decade. The new residents—drawn to the neighborhood’s waterfront access and proximity to downtown Boston—haven’t necessarily become aware of Rosas’ bakery.

Fernando Rosas stands outside his bakery.

Rosas opened La Casa Del Pandebono in 2019. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

“Something that we didn’t expect from the weekend was the amount of love that was generated from everybody,” says Dana Bogatko, a graduate student in project management at Northeastern who served as co-project manager for the Consult-a-thon, which was conducted by videoconferencing online.

“It was a great way for millennials to give back in a way that’s very helpful and not otherwise available in the community,” says Bogatko, who lives in East Boston. “I’m probably much more helpful using my brain than planting a tree.”

Ivy wanted the consultants to fully explore the issues before offering solutions. She asked them to go through a discovery process as detailed in her 2019 book, Crafting Your Edge for Today’s Job Market: Using the BE-EDGE Method for Consulting Cases and Capstone Projects. At the end of each step, the volunteers were asked to deliver a product to help push the mission forward. On Friday night, the owners pitched their businesses to the volunteers, who then chose which business they wished to advise—thus pairing each business with a team of three or four consultants.

Ivy was worried that some volunteers may drop out, based on the demands of the Consult-a-thon. Instead of withdrawing, Rosas’ group made a surprise visit early Saturday to experience his bakery.

“He is incredibly motivated to help the community,” says Madeline Demaree, a graduate student in business administration at Northeastern who served as a consultant for La Casa Del Pandebono. “He is involved with at least five community organizations, helping with food pantries and a local church. He’s so joyful, he works 16-hour days and you wouldn’t know it—he’s just so energetic.”

On Saturday, after interviewing the owners in breakout rooms, the consultants offered a one-page business case that detailed the challenges and goals for each business. By Saturday night they were offering a series of solutions that led to prizes of $750 to $1,000 that were awarded the next morning to help each business implement its upgrades.

Cinderbella’s Eco Cleaning was given a set of daily benchmarks meant to help meet the company’s goal of growing from five customers per week to 20.

First Class Hair Salon & Blow Dry Bar by Maggie Lopez was urged to explore opportunities to create partnerships with the high-rise luxury apartments nearby.

EastieFit, a CrossFit gym, was advised to offer a wider array of fitness services to attract families of all ages.

“Businesses were really excited to have folks so interested in their missions,” says Laura Cole, program director of New Urban Mechanics for the City of Boston. “It seems like a really great way to weave the fabric of a neighborhood. I’ve talked to many young professional people who want to give back to their communities in a meaningful way, but they have no idea where to start. Small businesses can always benefit from reaching a new clientele.”

The consultants urged Rosas to simplify his restaurant menu and adapt his menu to reflect the change in seasons, knowing that many bakery items sell better in winter than in summer. To take advantage of a cannabis dispensary that has opened up nearby, he created a sign for drinks designed to attract people who are lined up outside his door—and drink sales have gone up 30 percent.

He also will be investing more in his custom-cake business, per the consultant recommendations. He says it will be an expensive shift, based on the amount of time it takes to discuss options with customers, but the cakes differentiate his bakery from others in East Boston. 

Rosas says the advice will help him as the economy begins to reopen.

“They provided me with all the resources—and there are no costs,” Rosas says. “This is very helpful because if we don’t increase the earnings of my restaurant, we’re not going to make it. I need to focus on these [proposals] to catch up with all the revenue lost.”

Ivy hopes to run more consult-a-thons for Mission Hill, Roxbury, and other communities around Boston where many small businesses are struggling in the wake of the pandemic.

“These businesses are so rich in culture, in tradition,” says Ivy. “This is our team, our company, our solution, our community. Instead of you and me, it’s us.”

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