Meika Matthews didn’t set out to save downtown Port Dover.
But in the eyes of business owners who were kept afloat by sales of her Dover Rocks Box, that’s exactly what she did.
“I believe it saved our business,” Brad Lewis, owner of the Urban Parisian bakery, said of having his pastries and baguettes included in Matthews’ “curated collections of local products.”
“It brought in so much revenue that without it, I don’t think we could have got through the pandemic as well as we did,” Lewis said.
Artisanal cheeses and other goodies from the Dover Cheese Shop found a place in hundreds of boxes purchased by residents looking to shop local during the pandemic.
“We had just shut down and I was bawling my eyes out — what was the future of our business? And then this happened,” said shop owner Jenny Ball.
So many orders came in after Matthews launched her project a few days into the March lockdown that Ball suddenly had no time to worry about the future.
“It brought everybody back to work. It was crazy how busy it was,” Ball said. “It just kept me going. That Rocks Box, it was everything.”
Dozens of business owners — mostly of brick-and-mortar operations in Port Dover, as well as some wineries and cideries further afield — could tell a similar story.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Dover Rocks Box sales were on the verge of hitting the $100,000 mark, something Matthews could not have imagined in the spring.
“A lot of those business owners are my friends, and my friends were scared. They didn’t know what to do,” she said.
Moving with the speed of a seasoned community organizer, she had a website up and running and participating businesses signed on within 24 hours. Matthews said her aim was to keep cash registers ringing virtually as businesses were forced to close their doors and move sales online, some for the first time.
“This bought them a little bit of time during that first week of uncertainty and generated a little cash flow,” she said.
Within an hour of the website going live, Matthews had 13 sales. A total of 300 orders — and $26,000 in much-needed revenue for retailers — came in over the first six days.
As word spread on social media, store employees scrambled to wrap up scented candles and handmade soap, nautical-themed jewelry, local pottery, chocolates, preserves and restaurant gift certificates.
The rush of sales meant sleepless nights for Matthews and her team of volunteers, who packed the boxes inside their “war room” in the Erie Beach Hotel — whose celery bread was another box staple — and delivered them free of charge.
At the bakery, where business had plummeted by 75 per cent, Lewis ran out of flour because he could not keep up with what Matthews laughingly called the “baguette bottleneck.”
“My baker probably hasn’t been as busy as he was whenever we have a Dover Rocks Box,” said Lewis, who said he also got some new returning customers out of the deal.
“That just boosted the morale,” he said.
Some residents bought boxes for friends who were confined to their homes and needed a boost.
“That has been one of the heartwarming parts of Rocks Box — seeing people try to lift the spirits of others in the community,” Matthews said.
Box sales remained strong through Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and the summer. In the run-up to Remembrance Day, Matthews delivered 514 envelopes full of poppies and collected $2,635 in donations for the local legion.
Customers ordering Christmas boxes — the deadline is this Sunday — can add a $5 donation for the Port Dover Harbour Museum, with $1,640 raised so far.
Matthews doesn’t make a dime off this all-volunteer project. Along with maxing out her credit card each month to buy all the products at full retail price, she personally covers the cost of delivery and packaging — which is why, despite the catchy name, the Dover Rocks Box actually comes in gift bags.
She is quick to deflect credit for propping up Main Street to the shoppers themselves and her volunteers, including her mother, Anne, and members of the local Lions Club.
“This is definitely a ‘we all pull together’ mission,” Matthews said. “My nature is always to mobilize and try to solve a problem when I see it. It feels great just to be able to help.”
Ball said Dover’s business owners will not soon forget how residents like Matthews had their back.
“It’s incredible the way that the community has come together, the way we all worked together. And thank God for Meika. What a selfless thing to do,” Ball said.
“At a time when everything felt so awful, it was so sweet that people cared so much to make sure that not just us but the whole town survived.”
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator