'It pushed us to think outside the box': New Britain coffee shop forced to change business model in midst of pandemic after opening, overcomes obstacles to become huge success
NEW BRITAIN – It’s been one year since INI Sips in New Britain held a ribbon cutting to celebrate its opening, and while many businesses are closing due to the pandemic, this new business has only grown.
“We’ve been blessed because a lot of our customers really want to see us win. They really support small shops in Connecticut,” said Gulaid Ismail, co-owner of INI Sips.
INI Sips is a versatile Black- and veteran-owned premium coffee and tea shop with a lot to offer. Owned by husband and wife duo Gulaid and Davina Ismail, it officially opened its doors on Jan. 18, 2020 and a ribbon cutting ceremony was held by the city on Feb. 11.
“Our whole thing in the beginning was to make it more of a community space where people can come in, sit down and talk together and that was happening,” Davina Ismail said. “We had regulars and it was really nice getting to know people here in the community, especially because there wasn’t really anywhere people could come and get coffee and sit down.”
According to Ismail, there were still roadblocks over the past year, including a plan to do all roasting in-house starting spring 2020, with options for local businesses and non-profits to have custom blends made just for them, but that was put on hold when the state was put into lockdown.
“We opened the shop in January then in March we shut down because of the pandemic,” Ismail said. “Luckily we were just in talks about getting the equipment that we needed, so we never ended up going through with it because of the pandemic.”
INI Sips came to a pivot wondering what to do next. In turn, the shop successfully transitioned the community that they’d been building an in-person following with to online. Along with their website, they also increased their online presence through advertisements and social media. Making the transition was significant for INI Sips.
“It gave us a sense of community and feel again working with other small businesses that were going through the same thing,” Ismail said. “We were lucky that we grew online in a lot of different ways both locally, in Connecticut and nationally as well. We’ve got a significant amount of customers in Connecticut and interesting enough we’ve got four or five other countries shopping with us. We have lots of reward programs people can refer to their friends. And one thing that helped is we had a lot of organizations that shopped with us for their holiday gifts last year as well, a number of colleges and corporate places.”
INI Sips’ online sales increased by 300%. Their coffees and teas are now distributed in eight Big Y locations and six small family-owned businesses: Angelo’s Market in New Britain, Essential Health in West Hartford, Hartford Prints in Hartford, Avon Prime Meats in Avon, Olive and Henry in Cheshire and Lighthouse Design in Simsbury.
INI Sips has also successfully found a way to continue to rev up sales while giving back to the community.
“At the (start of pandemic) I was still working at the hospital as a frontline worker screening people for the virus,” Gulaid Ismail said. “So we decided ‘why don’t we help do our part, at least a small part, by giving back?’ So if (the customer) buy two 12 ounce bags of coffee we donate one.”
INI Sips has donated over 250 pounds of coffee to firefighters, police departments, hospitals, EMS, teachers, nonprofits and others who are helping in the community.
“The customers really like the idea of giving back and they felt like they were being involved,” Ismail said. “We posted pictures on social media just to let the customers know this is what your donations have done and show the smiles of the faces of the recipients.”
Because things are going so well INI Sips has not applied for or received any federal funding.
“One of the requirements is you have to have a significant reduction of like 30% or more and we were the opposite because of online sales,” Ismail said. “We were kind of bummed out at first when we read the requirements and then thought about it and were like why take something we don’t need, especially if it’s the opposite once we read more into it. We definitely found ourselves fortunate because of that.”
INI Sips physically reopened its storefront the first week of January but are not encouraging dine-in, just curbside pickup. Gulaid and Davina Ismail are the only ones currently working in the shop.
“It’s mostly new customers that come in because they Google us or happen to be walking by,” Davina Ismail said. “We’re making sure they’re six feet apart, sanitize and wear masks; we wear masks, gloves and clean constantly.”
INI Sips is located at 53 Columbus Boulevard. The shop is open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. and Thursday 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. and closed Saturday and Sunday.
“That was an additional change. We have a lot of customers that can’t always get here during business hours so we opened late night on Thursdays to allow those customers to pick up their orders,” Ismail said. “As a family-owned business it’s very important for us to have a balance between work and family life, even if it is a pandemic, so we currently don’t have weekend hours because we want to make sure we have time to spend with the kids. We do have plans in the future, most likely when it warms up, to add Saturday hours into the rotation.”
Though they were forced to change in many ways from when they first opened, INI Sips has not let anything stop it from growing.
“The pandemic definitely changed everything we thought our business was going to be and I think if nothing else it accelerated us four or five years to what we are now,” Ismail said. “We never thought we’d get there initially so fast so it pushed us to think outside the box and we have a bunch of new ideas for this year as well.”
INI Sips can be found at inisips.com or by phone at 860-975-5594.