Econ 919 — Cash mob during COVID still sparks support

Aug 28, 2020

Reindeer Hut owners Aaron Condradt and Benjamin Peterson say they saw an uptick in business throughout the day when they were selected as the Soldotna Cash Mob eatery for August.
Credit Jenny Neyman/KDLL

A year and a half ago, Rhonda McCormick localized a nationwide effort to support shopping and eating at locally owned businesses. The Soldotna Cash Mob was born.

Once a month, she invited any interested participants to eat at a designated restaurant at a designated time, then, as a group, go shop at a selected store. But since March, the “mob” mentality needed to change.

“Well, when COVID came and we went into lockdown, that kind of changed things a little bit and someone asked me if we were going to do a takeout version,” McCormick said. “And I was like, ‘Well, that’s a great idea.' So I set that up and then I thought, 'Well, we might as well do shopping that way, too.'”

Instead of the all-together approach, McCormick posts the designated restaurant and retail store on the group’s Facebook page and mobsters, as they’re called, participate whenever and however they like — take out, ordering online, buying a gift card or still eating and shopping in person, just not all at once.

“I definitely think we’re missing that group effort where everyone comes together and visits and, you know, people see each other they haven’t seen for a while or new people show up or they bring a friend and introduce them to the concept. This is a whole different way of doing this,” McCormick said. “I don’t think it’s nearly as much fun because you lose that camaraderie that happens as a result of this but we’re doing what we can to make it work. That’s the bottom line.”

There has been a benefit to the new approach. It allows McCormick to select smaller businesses. Some restaurants or shops weren’t able to accommodate 40 or so people all at once. Now, smaller businesses get the impact of the mob spread out over the day, or even days or weeks after the designated monthly mob day.

The Reindeer Hut food truck was the August eatery on Thursday. Co-owner Aaron Conrad said they’d gotten orders from the cash mob throughout the day — in person, over the phone and online.

“We’ve definitely seen a lot of new faces, which is good, and first-timers. I had a lady just call, said she loved it, first time, she’s going to get dinner again. So that’s promising. It’s nice,” Conrad said.

Conrad had heard about the cash mob but hadn’t been able to join. He’d always been working when the group met for dinner and shopping. 

“I first heard about it when Maggie’s General Store was the place to shop, probably a year ago now. And I was like, ‘Woah, that’s super cool.' And then I followed the page and I always tried to participate but it never worked around my schedule. And I think maybe now with a little more flexibility, it’s more enticing for people to participate,” Conrad said.

Alaska Wildgear was the designated shopping spot Thursday, owned by Rona Hodges and her husband. Hodges said she hadn’t heard of the cash mob before being asked to participate but thinks it’s a great idea.

“I think it’s really cool. It’s a neat idea. It’s a way to promote local small business. And I just heard about it when they asked us and I was like, ‘Sure.’ And now I’m a member and I plan on doing that same so I think it’s a pretty cool idea,” Hodges said.

McCormick says word of mouth and personal invites from participants are helpful to raise awareness about the cash mob but the Soldotna Cash Mob Facebook group remains the best way to stay up to date on when and where to eat and shop each month. They’ve expanded to Kenai businesses, as well, so it’s not just a Soldotna thing.

She did a poll last month about people’s preferences for COVID-related participation and found most voters were comfortable eating and shopping in person these days. But she says they’ll hold off on going back to the whole mob meeting at once place at one time for now.

“I hate to host the cash mob in a way that will make people feel like they can’t participate. And right now, in my mind, the way of making everyone feel like they can participate no matter what their comfort level is, is to do it like we’re doing it right now,” McCormick said.

Join Soldotna Cash Mob on Facebook. They announce the monthly locations about a week in advance.