How many ways can we sell a biscuit?
Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit founder Carrie Morey posed the question to her employees on a Zoom call early on in the pandemic. At the time, it wasn’t clear if tourists would be coming back in a few weeks, a few months or at all.
Morey’s Charleston-based group of four bakeries across the Southeast serve little biscuits in little shops to typically not-so-little lines of hungry tourists, all eager to snap photos of picture-perfect biscuits.
But when tourism largely disappeared during the coronavirus pandemic, so did those lines and, with it, a large portion of her business’s revenue. Now, Morey said, it’s clear they “missed the tourist boat” this year, and focus has shifted to survival during the months ahead.
When Morey founded her biscuit business 15 years ago, it was an online-only operation. But that wasn’t through any prescience about how much of a lifeline e-commerce would become in 2020.
Her decision then was about wanting the flexibility to be home with her three young daughters. Morey didn’t open her first retail store until her youngest was in school, she said.
Her business has “flip-flopped completely,” she said. The bake shops used to be more profitable than the mail-order side of her business. During the pandemic, it’s been the other way around.
“We got really lucky in our diversification,” Morey said. “That’s when you count your blessings.”
Sales are down about 85 percent at the Callie’s locations in Charlotte and Atlanta. The same is true for the bake shop in Charleston’s City Market.
The flagship shop on Upper King Street is faring better, with sales down about 50 percent. That location will last, Morey said.
“I don’t have the same confidence about the other ones,” she said.
Morey is most concerned about the store in Charlotte, which is on the first floor of The Penrose, a luxury apartment complex in the city’s South End.
The shop opened about five weeks before the pandemic started to shut things down in the U.S., but, in those first weeks, Morey said they were breaking sales records and drawing long lines.
That business evaporated when the pandemic hit. The apartment complex, which should have been a built-in source of customers, saw a large chunk of tenants move out.
Because of the drop in foot traffic at the stores, each location now makes all the biscuits they sell in-house.
Previously, only a portion of the product a store would sell in a day was made there. The other share was prepared at the Callie’s bakery in North Charleston, which is housed in a former officer’s home on the old Navy Base.
That meant the work of baking for the shops was taken away from the North Charleston facility. But, thanks to an uptick in online orders and a new grocery store deal, employees at the headquarters are still busy.
Morey was able to bring back workers who had temporarily been laid off, and the company also made a number of new hires. Like other food and beverage businesses, Callie’s found some people didn’t want their jobs back.
On a recent Wednesday — one of the businesses’s main days for packing and sending off online orders — a long table in the bakery building’s front room was filled with lines of bright red boxes ready to be loaded with cinnamon biscuits.
In the kitchen, employees wearing face masks along with their aprons and hair nets cut and buttered biscuit dough on huge baking sheets.
Large walk-in freezers behind the building were stocked with baked biscuits.
Pre-pandemic, Morey’s staff would pack about 50 to 60 direct-to-consumer online orders at the North Charleston bakery on a shipment day. Now, it’s closer to 100.
While the bulk of their online shoppers live in the Southeast, the geographic makeup of the orders has been more widespread lately, Morey said. They’re getting more West Coast and Midwest orders than before.
But the main reason they’ve been so busy baking this summer isn’t online sales. They’re prepping for a new grocery deal that will put Callie’s Biscuits in 800 Publix stores.
That’s been in the works for years, Morey said, but officially came together late this spring. Harris Teeter, which was stocking their product regionally, also expanded their order, putting the biscuits in 250 stores.
In terms of ways to sell a biscuit, grocery stores and online orders seem to be what plenty of Callie’s fans are looking for, judging from the comments on their official Instagram account.
On a recent post about the company’s collaboration with Lewis Barbecue, the first two comments were about how to get the biscuits, neither of which involved going to a Callie’s location:
“Do you sell any of your products at Whole Foods?”
“Do you ship across the U.S.?”
“I miss coming to Charleston and eating your biscuits,” one woman wrote on another post. “Darn COVID.”
The Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit account replied, reminding her the biscuits could come to her instead.