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Economy & Business

Wash U Students Help Businesses Strategize To Navigate The Pandemic

Customers browse fresh produce at Eckert's Country Store in Belleville. The store has been open throughout the pandemic, but the farms are slowly introducing summer attractions.
Kae Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
Customers browse fresh produce at Eckert's Country Store in Belleville. The store has been open throughout the pandemic, but the farms are slowly introducing summer attractions.

Alivia Kaplan had big summer plans. She was set to fly home to Hawaii after her sophomore year at Washington University’s Olin Business School in St. Louis and get her real estate license.

But the coronavirus pandemic canceled her flight — and her summer plans.

That’s when her business and economics professor offered her a consulting job with a big goal: to help St. Louis businesses adapt to the challenges of operating during a pandemic.

Wash U professor Glenn MacDonald said students often do strategic consulting to help businesses develop, like expanding to a second location or launching an online store. 

Dealing with a deadly infectious disease is new, MacDonald said, “But the kind of processes that they would use to get at COVID are really no different from the ones they would use to get at other problems.” 

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Credit Alivia Kaplan
Wash U business students meet on Zoom to develop coronavirus response strategies for local businesses.

Kaplan is now the program’s manager, working with dozens of other Wash U students to help companies partnered with a regional small business task force. And while this isn’t the first time Kaplan has done consulting work, she said the coronavirus presents unique and urgent challenges for business owners. 

“Now it's much more about things like, ‘How do we survive the next couple of weeks, the next couple months? How do we make sure that we're not shut down because of the virus?’” she said.

One of the businesses the students are working with is Eckert’s Family Farms, the Belleville-based farm chain with locations in Illinois and Kentucky. The farm’s store in Belleville has been so busy that Eckert’s has had to hire new employees, according to Angie Eckert, vice president of retail operations. 

But it’s complicated to adapt the farm’s biggest attractions, such as self-picking berries or sunflower mazes, to follow Illinois’ guidelines for outdoor recreation while keeping the experience intact, Eckert said. 

“There’s so many families that make a tradition out of the experience at Eckert’s, and that just breaks my heart that it’s going to be restricted year,” she said.

Eckert’s has already found some solutions. 

The farm normally packs more than 40 people into a wagon and takes them out to pick strawberries in a field. But they’ve had to change that system to reservation-only in order to stagger groups. Those slots sold out and the reservations seemed to work last weekend, Eckert said.

But she said she’s hopeful that the Wash U students will help them come up with other creative ways to serve their customers safely. 

“We’re beyond shock,” she said. “Now we’re like, ‘OK, let’s figure this out.’ Because it’s here to stay, at least for a little while.” 

Follow Kae on Twitter: @kmaepetrin

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