All of us have had to make some significant life adjustments in these past few weeks, but small businesses are amongst those that have been hit the hardest. With most having to close their doors, many owners are faced with uncertainties regarding how they’ll keep paying their rent, payroll, and personal expenses.
However, many small business owners are finding ways to rise above the challenges.
Like most small businesses, Refuge Coffee & Baking Co. had to abruptly shift how they serviced their customers. Owner, Jocelyn Tucker, shares, “We chose to close our doors to the public earlier on, for the health of our own staff, family, and community. We then took a few days to figure out our new game plan and get supplies. It was important for us also to figure out the most contactless way of doing business. We started by doing deliveries of 1L cold soups, family-style baking, and our coffee beans. Customers order when our [social media] posts go live, we then send out an emailed invoice, which is payable online, and then deliver on customers’ porches, with a text notifying its arrival. Luckily, we have such great customers and are situated in a smaller community, so no invoices have yet to go unpaid! We've also, for a sense of normalcy, started curb-side pickup Saturday mornings by running our coffee bar and selling baking. We are hoping to transition into a more consistent schedule and have our coffee bar running most days of the week in a couple of weeks, and then still offer cold 1L family-style soups, etc. Still curb-side, to limit contact.”
“During the first days of the outbreak, things seemed to be changing hour-by-hour, and I was feeling a little overwhelmed as I have almost 30 staff and they were all looking to me for guidance and answers and the best decision to make for themselves,” Paget shares. “On the morning of Monday, March 16th, Global News wanted to have a chat with me and I had a little bit of a breakdown because I was having trouble processing what I was going to do. A quick chat with my daughter was exactly what I needed. We formulated a plan for a drive-thru and delivery service, so I phoned the lady at Global News and said, heck yeah, I would talk on TV,” laughs Paget.
“We slapped together Tisha’s trailerpark-style drive-thru out the back of the building and set up a delivery service with my son doing the delivering, and all advertising done on social media. I offer parents, spouses, girlfriends, friends, and more the opportunity to order and pay for a meal for their loved one, which we then deliver. Adult children can prepay for meals to be delivered to their aged parents, and we offer front step delivery, so we can feed anyone totally contact-free.”
She continues, “I also understand that the current situation could change any day and our business may be further restricted, but I’m also geared up and have some ideas in that case too.” Paget laughs, “I’m not going anywhere!”
Paget admits, “Generally I am quite anti-technology despite knowing the power of it. I have always preferred face-to-face interaction, which is what I have built my business on - personal connection. I do believe that I am reaping the harvest of the seven years I have invested into my business and my customers, creating a true community. In a way, I feel like I have been taking care of the community since I opened, and now we are taking care of each other. But yes, I have turned into a social media person and I am on my phone way more than I ever have been! I am so thankful for the ability to interact with my D’Lish community. I am on Facebook and Instagram so much I’m kind of getting sick of myself - I just hope that others aren’t! It is such an amazing way to get our information and offerings to everyone.”
While many cafes and restaurants are switching to take-out and delivery, other industries may have a harder time figuring out alternative ways to keep going. Co-founder of Wheelhouse Cycle Club, Kyle Gibson, talks about how his team decided to shift their business.
“We kind of came to the realization, looking at other fitness studios in the States, that we were going to have to close eventually, so it made more sense to do it proactively, and do it early, so we did it on our own terms instead of being forced to close down or have people in the community worried about us. We just wanted to keep everyone safe and do it on our own terms.
So when we did that, it just quickly shifted to, what can we do now to, one, pay the bills, and two, make something positive come out of this situation so we can serve the people of this community...They’re locked in their houses and they need some sort of physical exercise, some outlet to keep things from becoming monotonous and stale and depressing [like they do] if you don’t have a chance to workout and leave the rest of your day.”
Gibson and his team quickly came up with a creative solution.
“We decided to rent out all of our bikes the day after we closed,” says Gibson. “The response was amazing. We hand-delivered the bikes to everyone’s houses - so 115 bikes delivered to people’s doorsteps - then we started doing live rides on Instagram and saving them so people can view them on demand. We’ve done those for the past two and a half weeks now. We’ve seen people tune in from all over North America, which has been cool to see and has made us realize that, one, we’ve got something special happening, but also two, since we don’t know when we’ll be able to reopen again, we can turn this into something more permanent than just bike rentals while we’re closed. So we quickly worked with our distributor for our bikes and now we’re selling our own Wheelhouse-branded at-home bike, then we’re working on our own streaming platform so we’ll have all our in-demand rides there and live rides there on one site that people can watch whenever.”
While not a complete shift in direction, Gibson shares how the new initiative might not have happened had they not had to temporarily shift their business model.
“I think we do have a lot of potential with our at-home bike. There are some people who are renting our bikes who haven't been able to come to Wheelhouse because they have young kids or just have other commitments that make it hard to get to group fitness classes on a schedule, but this allows them to do it whenever they want. It’s something we always talked about, to have our own at-home bike, but we just didn’t have the time or it wasn’t a priority until we were in this situation.”
Like Tucker and Paget, Gibson has also found social media to be a critical tool in maintaining business.
“One of the best parts of these live rides is that people can comment and toss emojis in and there’s a discussion going on during the ride. So you might be home by yourself but it doesn’t feel like you’re by yourself because you can see how many people are on the ride, you can see the people giving comments, you can see the motivator giving you a shout-out. So it’s cool to have that two-way dialogue that Instagram provides us.”
Furthermore, their social reach has been pretty impressive.
“This is a big credit to my business partner, Linden, he’s the marketing guru in the business, and he’s built such a strong following on our Instagram account that we had a pretty big platform going into it,” says Gibson. “Before, we had 17,000 followers on Instagram and it’s grown quite a bit since we started doing these.”
Of course, the time hasn’t been without its difficulties.
“Supply shortages are a challenge,” says Tucker, “I'm trying to reduce my grocery trips to the bare minimum, which is hard! When I do go, there are often limits on baking ingredients that I need for the demand we have.”
Paget agrees that the time has had some pretty serious stressors.
“I think that the main challenge in the midst of everything has been to find a way to go forward with confidence, knowing I’m responsible for the safety of everyone who works here and everyone who supports my business during this time. Not only the physical safety, but also the mental and emotional part as well. I am extremely close to my staff and they look to me for guidance and reassurance. That has been tricky when so much of this is unknown. All that I can let them know is I’m always doing my best, and I will always try to provide the best working situation I can.”
Local artist Michelle Plett had a particularly creative and generous idea to serve her community and spread some hope.
“I wanted to try to use my art in a way that was beneficial to our community. I used one of my pieces, titled ‘Reach Out and Touch Someone’, as a catalyst to raise the funds. People could make a donation and for every $10 they donated, their name was entered into a draw to win the painting. The draw itself earned $1220. I used these funds to purchase food from 3 local businesses (D’lish, Little Bird Patisserie & Cafe, and Earthbound Bakery) and then donated all the food to The Bridge on 20th where they feed many hungry people every day. It really was a win/win/win event. Someone won a painting while supporting local businesses and meeting a real need in the community.
The generosity was exponential because D’lish and Little Bird both donated above and beyond my initial order with them. In the end, I was able to deliver just over $2000 worth of food to The Bridge.”
Plett’s experience showed how truly enthusiastic and committed people are about stepping up to serve their communities in the midst of everything that’s been happening.
“I was inspired by the thought that a single gesture of generosity could grow exponentially if many people engaged with it,” says Plett. “People responded in ways that exceeded my expectations. I think the message of my painting resonated with people. In the initial communication about my initiative I explained how ‘reach out and touch someone’ was so relevant these days, and how it could go beyond the literal form of touch and take the form of care and giving. Many people participated to raise the initial funds. The response of the local businesses was also overwhelming. I did not approach them for donations. I explained that my intent was to support them by giving them business. Even so, they went above and beyond just doing business.”
She continues, “Honestly, the kindness and generosity of people grew exponentially and I was completely overwhelmed. It really was my pleasure to be able to do this.”
The small business owners agreed that they’ve seen positives as well.
“There are definitely silver linings!” says Tucker of her experience, “Our shop got a good spring cleaning the first few days closed, we had time to try new recipes, and we’ve had time in general as our lives hadn't had a chance to slow down since opening just over two years ago. I also believe that our deliveries are bringing people a sense of normalcy, and so the customers’ response to what we're doing has been really positive and encouraging. Other encouragement I've received from other business owners, checking in and offering supply-sharing, etc., has been amazing. It's really bringing out the neighbourly spirit!”
Paget felt the same. “I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the response of people. Their appreciation for what we are doing is so touching! The kindness and patience of many while we are trying our best through a very challenging time is what keeps us going many days.”
She goes on, “There have been so, so many positives! It’s like I feel like I am seeing people having a chance to be who they truly are. Returning back to living in a state of gratitude for everyday things that were once taken for granted. I’ve had some staff members absolutely amaze me and step up in leadership roles. We have been writing on our delivery bags - bad jokes, words of encouragement. I even have a few paper bag authors who write Love in the Time of Corona sagas - anything to bring a little bit of good juju with their soup!
Another thing that has sustained me - and it’s a good thing that has come out of this - is my undeniable passion for feeding people, caring for people through soup, and finding connection with people through what I love to do. Very validating, reaffirming, and motivating.”
When asked what they would say to other entrepreneurs and small business owners, all four interviewees only had words of encouragement and mutual support.
“The nice part for entrepreneurs is knowing everyone is in the same boat,” says Gibson, “It’s not like there’s anyone else that has an advantage or something else that puts you further behind. We’re all in this together and we’re all just trying to figure it out. So once you make that switch, tackle it with all you can do.”
Plett reflected, “This is a time for all of us to reevaluate many things, how we live our personal lives as well as how we conduct our businesses. It is time to consider what it is that makes our hearts beat fast and keep that the main thing while letting other less meaningful or less fruitful things go. Artists, makers, and small businesses have to get creative in terms of how we get things done, and also in how we support each other in these times.”
While all four entrepreneurs have faced challenges in the midst of COVID, all have found that their communities are behind them, and with a bit of out-of-the-box thinking, their businesses are poised to make it through this difficult season. Sometimes even with unexpected growth into new areas and initiatives that they’ll continue once it’s all over.
Reflecting on what he’s experienced, as well as the situation of other local businesses he’s seen in his community and on social media, Gibson sums up the outlook for small businesses well, and with hope.
“I think people do want to support small businesses in the community. You just have to give them an avenue that allows that to happen.”