Hundreds of thousands of Canadian small businesses have been hanging by a thread during the pandemic. Revenues have collapsed as loans have piled up: By one count, the average entrepreneur has taken on $110,000 in COVID-19-related debt. The situation has left one in seven small businesses at risk of permanently closing. Among restaurants alone, more than 10,000 are closed and waiting anxiously, with half at risk of never reopening.
Restaurants and their fellow storefront retailers have borne much of the pandemic’s economic damage. Many sit at the heart of their communities – vital hubs for dining, gathering and commerce – yet saw their already-thin margins collapse when lockdown orders forced them to shut their doors in March. Government support programs have been uneven, and sometimes outright impossible to access for many owners. Life, for most, has been a struggle.
Entrepreneurs in some sectors have fared better – those that work in home renovations, for example, have seen in a boom this year. Even so, more small businesses have been permanently shutting down with each passing day, especially during the second wave of COVID-19 infections.
But small-business owners are an enterprising bunch, and more willing than most people to take risks. Few want to give up easily. Some see the pandemic as a challenge to which they should rise, finding ways to adapt amid the biggest economic crisis in generations. They’ve found new ways to embrace the moment, the internet and each other.
Here are five of their stories.
For years, whenever people learned that Julie Dyck and Michael Humphries were jewellers, many would offer a version of the same comment: “I’d love to turn the jewellery I never wear into something new.”
This wasn’t something Ms. Dyck and Mr. Humphries paid all that much heed to before COVID-19. Over two decades, the Toronto designers had diversified their product range, making everything from $40,000 earrings to $10,000 engagement rings to $30 sterling-silver fashion jewellery for retailers such as Winners. It was enough to assume their business could withstand sudden change – be it to fashion or the economy itself. “We thought we had everything figured out,” Ms. Dyck says.
But a pandemic wasn’t part of the plan. Business skidded to a halt in March.
Suddenly armed with an “unlimited amount of time,” Mr. Humphries says, the pair began to reconsider all those comments about remaking old jewellery. Plenty of other jewellers marketed their wares online, and he and Ms. Dyck wanted to break through the noise. The appeal of renovating old jewellery – doing ring renos, so to speak – soon became clearer.
Ms. Dyck and Mr. Humphries began taking out Facebook and Instagram ads for Ring Reno in August, first thinking they might get a few people wanting to modify one piece of jewellery. But once potential customers heard of the sudden startup, they began asking if the duo would remake three or four pieces at a time.
Customers – lots of them – now send Ms. Dyck and Mr. Humphries pictures of their old jewellery for a free evaluation, then shop online for designs to which their old diamonds and gemstones can be affixed. The new pieces usually cost $1,000 to $2,000, and the older pieces’ gold and platinum can be recycled for credit against the price.
The pair are both goldsmiths and certified diamond setters working from a downtown Toronto studio, which gives them the freedom to make and modify jewellery in ways that might require traditional goldsmiths to outsource work.
These skills came in handy: Remaking jewelry now accounts for 70 per cent of their business, and business is up. December sales were 34 per cent higher than last year. And by keeping so much work in-house, they cut the often-long wait times for custom jewellery to two or three weeks.
“A lot of people want to get rid of old gold and make something new,” Ms. Dyck says. “Putting it all together in a fast, easy way is appealing.”
At a family reunion eight or nine years ago, cousins Andrew McBarnett and Stafford Attsz were enjoying ice cream and reminiscing about their grandfather, Charles Alfred Neale. He’d spent decades riding his bike into neighbourhoods in and around Princes Town, Cocoyea and San Fernando, in Trinidad, selling ice cream. He’d blow his horn and yell, “It’s sweet and nice!” Kids would then crowd around for a scoop.
Mr. Neale kept selling his ice cream until a month before he died in the late 1980s. As his two grandkids reminisced at the reunion, they mulled resurrecting the brand. Pretty quickly, Mr. McBarnett and Mr. Attsz started taking the idea seriously. A few things were different – technology had evolved enough that they didn’t have to hand-churn the ice cream like Mr. Neale – but they were committed enough that they named the business after their grandfather.
After a visit to startup-pitch TV show Dragons’ Den in 2013, they got the idea to focus their sales on independent stores in the Toronto region. By the middle of the decade, you could find coconut and mango flavoured Neale’s Sweet N Nice Ice Cream in a few dozen of them. Soon their aunt Rosemarie Wilson, Mr. Neale’s daughter, left her job at the Bank of Nova Scotia to help on the product side as the third co-founder.
Starting in 2018, Neale’s began moving into grocery chains – Sobeys, Foodland and then FreshCo – gradually putting them in nearly 60 chain outlets, mostly in Ontario. Stores in Montreal and Richmond, B.C., soon followed. And the founders expanded their flavours to include pineapple coconut, guava passionfruit and rum and raisin.
The past year was supposed to be another banner one for Neale’s, as it set out to expand into more chains nationally, including Loblaw stores. The Loblaw rollout was planned for March.
That debut was delayed because of the pandemic. But customers were still clamouring for Neale’s ice cream. Demand only surged higher as the buy-local mindset many consumers adopted during the pandemic combined with a buy Black sentiment that arose after new-found attention to Black Lives Matter movements after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police this past summer.
Accommodating the demand meant asking the firm’s manufacturer to move to on-demand production just as the world’s supply chains became more precarious. “Every time I’d see my numbers changing, I’d discuss with Andrew,” Ms. Wilson says. “There have been times we ran out of packaging because of the demand.”
At the beginning of August, Neale’s had to plead with a supplier to provide more cups as soon as possible. “We literally had to call up the packaging company, speak with the president and ask him to support a Canadian family business,” Mr. McBarnett says.
It worked. The family persuaded the packaging president to get them enough cups to keep up with demand. It’s now in many Loblaw, Longo’s, No Frills and Metro stores. The total is 505 outlets across Canada, and Mr. Neale’s descendants just keep making more ice cream. “From summer until now, we’ve tripled the business,” Mr. McBarnett says.
In 2019, Wes Hall, the founder and executive chair of Kingsdale Advisors, who later founded the BlackNorth anti-Black-racism initiative, caught wind of Neale’s. Growing up in Jamaica, he saved every penny to buy ice cream on Sundays, and saw a tradition worth investing in. He’s helped Neale’s expand and rebrand, and hopes more grocers dedicate space on their shelves and in their supply chains to products made by entrepreneurs who are Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) and don’t have the scale and influence of major corporations.
“If we give them a bit of advantage on the shelf, with payment terms, and in the supply chain, we’re going to see more very good BIPOC businesses spring up as a result of the pandemic,” Mr. Hall says.
THE LONG HAUL
It hasn’t been a good year for the travel booking business. After overseeing nearly $140-million worth of corporate trips in 2019, staff at the Montreal travel management company Encore Travel began seeing a rise in trip cancellations in the first two months of 2020.
As bookings kept sinking, Monique Mardinian, the company’s founder and CEO, had to rethink strategy. On March 13, she sent staff home and shut down the office. Then, she says, the real frenzy began.
The collapse of corporate travel didn’t mean that Encore’s work was over. It meant the company had to repatriate clients – from everywhere. Some were stuck in Kenya for months; others in Spain. One couple spent weeks in Peru before Encore staff found a way to get them home – via Jamaica. “It was a really heroic moment for our travel agents,” Ms. Mardinian says.
With revenue depleted, she had to furlough half of Encore’s nearly 100 employees, rotating them back when possible as the company ramped up training for their new reality.
That meant staff had to be up-to-date with a constant flow of new policies and procedures – for each client, each jurisdiction they travelled to and each airline and travel partner that got them there. Quarantine rules, testing rules and liabilities: Everything was changing.
Information is increasingly Encore’s trade – even more so for Zii, its companion business that Ms. Mardinian founded in 2018 to ease the flow of data in travel booking. Zii is designed to put real-time data into the hands of the right people: trip details for travellers, compliance data for finance teams and employee locations for risk management teams.
In a normal year, Zii’s core benefit might have been cost savings. But in 2020, many clients, such as grocers, needed to travel to ensure essential goods were available to consumers. Zii automated the manual work that clients’ executives and employees would otherwise need to do to ensure they knew travel risks and liabilities.
Now, Ms. Mardinian is talking to clients in Canada, the U.S., the United Kingdom, Sweden and Finland to adopt the multilingual, multicurrency platform as they reimagine travel during and after the pandemic. “Technology and real-time data are the only way to react quickly to anything,” she says, “and we saw that when the pandemic hit.”
SIDELINED SUPPLIES, DIGITAL POTENTIAL
Nearly 90 per cent of Sapling & Flint’s sales were online before the pandemic. Its founders, Dakota Brant and Jesse Brant, are sisters who realized early on that e-commerce would be the key to unlocking a market for their jewellery. Their gallery in the village of Ohswé:ken, in Six Nations of the Grand River territory near Brantford, Ont., depended heavily on tourism for in-person sales.
Launched in 2014, Sapling & Flint specializes in handmade jewellery – much of it gold, wampum and sterling silver, in designs that pay tribute to traditions, objects, animals and places dear to the Haudenosaunee. But, like many other small businesses, the design shop was considered non-essential and forced to shut down in the early days of the pandemic.
Luckily, the owners were already online. Their supply chain was less lucky.
Every moment counts for small businesses; an ordinary decision about product lines in the spring can reshape the rest of the year. Sapling & Flint didn’t just have to shut down in March, it also had to safely resume manufacturing and find new suppliers months ahead of Black Friday and a busy fall holiday season.
The designers’ chain suppliers, for example, were in the U.S. On top of widespread shutdowns, President Donald Trump restrained the country’s postal service ahead of the November election, putting Sapling & Flint’s pendants in peril. Dakota Brant and her sister instead had to scour Toronto for supplies, settling for new styles they weren’t used to.
Though the sisters had nowhere near the volume of Black Friday merchandise they wanted ready by September, they hired someone part-time to help speed things up. As things turned out, 2020 sales were twice as high as the year before, with many products sold out.
“We have to take the sales that we can, and be grateful for it,” Dakota Brant says. But the success prompted her to consider how to adjust to demand. “If I had twice the volume, I would have sold twice the volume.”
Now she’s thinking about hiring. Not just in the context of the pandemic, but for afterward. And not just in terms of how it could help the business, but how it could help members of the Six Nations more broadly.
Not every employee needs to be in the same physical space – especially as the company expands and hires for positions such as bookkeeping, marketing and accounting. That could have wide-reaching benefits for First Nations people who don’t want to leave their lifelong homes. “There are a lot of gifted, talented Six Nations people that are getting these amazing skill sets,” Ms. Brant says. “But often we’re educating our people to leave the community.”
First Nations communities are among the most socially and economically isolated in the country. E-commerce, she believes, can help reduce this. “You don’t have to live in Winnipeg, you don’t have to live in Toronto, to grow your business like we have. We have the capacity among us to start bringing these things home.”
POWER IN NUMBERS
Like a lot of food entrepreneurs, Janeen Norman watched the restaurant and commercial clients of her family business, Calgary’s Alpine Sausage, fade away with the pandemic.
Alpine, which sells locally sourced meat and poultry, was quickly forced to depend on retail customers to stay afloat. They were helpful and loyal, but couldn’t make up for the losses. “We had the small side of the business trying to hold up the large side of the business,” Ms. Norman says.
A few years ago, she had the idea of banding together with other Calgary food producers she knew to build a local-food delivery network, but wasn’t able to follow through. The pandemic made her reconsider it. As many Calgarians ordered food from their favourite local producers, those producers were getting hit by charges for each delivery. But if the businesses came together, they could reduce consumer costs with bulk deliveries – while encouraging their customers to support many local businesses at once.
Ms. Norman reached out to foodie friends with the idea, and many got on board immediately. Two dozen businesses eventually agreed to take part, and Best of Calgary Foods was born.
The owners began to co-ordinate how to get their goods to Calgarians, giving customers chances to mix and match: Vegan artichoke salsa from 2 Greek Gals could arrive alongside apple cider from Village Brewery and gingerbread peanut brittle from Sweetsmith Candy Company.
Co-ordinating deliveries from 24 vendors would be a difficult task in normal times, let alone in a pandemic. Ms. Norman and her colleagues first set up a small space in November to work out logistics with a local courier, ordering 200 reusable bins for the deliveries. Demand was three times higher than they expected, with 775 orders in the first four days – forcing them to double their bin order and move to a larger distribution centre.
People loved the idea. Holiday season orders were booked up weeks before Christmas. Calgarians who put an order in now will have to wait until at least Jan. 7 to get their goods.
The support has been crucial for businesses such as the Rock Ridge Dairy in Ponoka, Alta., which processes and sells whole natural goat dairy and organic cow milk products. Co-owner Cherylynn Bos says the company lost nearly $55,000 during the pandemic from an organic grocery in financial trouble that didn’t pay its invoices. Like Alpine Sausage, her commercial accounts dried up, too – a week before Christmas, she had 60 pallets of cheese sitting on the farm with nowhere to go.
“It’s hit us hard, so for us to establish retail clientele and a home consumer base – it’s so important,” Ms. Bos says.
Speaking by phone from her car between deliveries in mid-December, Ms. Norman said she’s heard from entrepreneurs in other cities about trying the same collective business model. Her own plans will last well beyond the pandemic. “I think this is going to be an ongoing source of revenue for all of us,” she says.
The Globe and Mail, January 1, 2021