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Small business owners on how they have adapted amid the COVID-19 economy

Last Updated Apr 21, 2020 at 3:28 pm EDT

Michael Mallette, president of BFF, a doggy daycare and boarding service in Toronto and Prince Edward Country, Ont., poses with a dog in an undated handout photo. When COVID-19 hit, Mallette did what he has done many times before: pivot. Mallette spent 15 years in the payments industry before opening BFF, a doggy daycare, boarding and walking business in Prince Edward Country, Ont. and Toronto, four years ago. Amid COVID-19, he temporarily closed most of those services to all but health care and frontline workers and started selling vegetable and fruit boxes with produce from closed, local restaurants. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - BFF Mandatory Credit

Small business owners across the country have found themselves forced to temporarily shut down as the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the economy. The Canadian Press spoke to some entrepreneurs who have found ways to adapt and serve their customers in new ways under unusual circumstances.

Michael Mallette, president of BFF, a doggy daycare and boarding service in Toronto and Prince Edward Country, Ont.

When COVID-19 hit, Michael Mallette did what he has done many times before: pivot.

Mallette spent 15 years in the payments industry before opening BFF, a doggy daycare, boarding and walking business in Prince Edward Country, Ont. and Toronto, four years ago.

Amid COVID-19, he temporarily closed most of those services to all but health care and frontline workers and started selling vegetable and fruit boxes with produce from closed, local restaurants.

“Lots of our clients are downtown and they don’t have cars and they don’t have ways to go and get groceries right now. They maybe have people that are a little bit more at risk in their homes or they might be at risk themselves,” he said. 

“We just said, ‘look, we can’t do full shopping…but this will be a way for us to help support our local restaurants.”

Customers were clamouring for the boxes, but Mallette had to hit pause on the concept because governments were advising more businesses to suspend operations and increasingly asking people to stay home.

“We had barely launched,” Mallette said. “It was a very tough decision, but we just can’t risk our staff.”

Now, he’s just focusing on boarding the pets of health-care workers and launching a virtual and free version of BFF’s “Puppy Power Hour,” a social for dogs.

While money is on his mind, he’s not as stressed as some about paying the bills because he owns his Prince Edward Country facility and has a lenient landlord in Toronto.

His 17 Toronto staff are also rising to the occasion.

“Before things got to where they are right now, they had called me privately in the background and said turn off my salary, give it to the people that need it,” Mallette said. 

“Employees that had somebody else in their family earning income were giving their shifts away to the other staff that needed it the most…They’ve been supporting each other right from the start.”

———

Craig Sheridan, owner of Legends Hall, a food distribution service in Coquitlam, B.C.

Craig Sheridan’s wholesale food business once relied on restaurants in and around Vancouver for about half of its clientele.

When the COVID-19 outbreak shuttered many of the province’s eateries for all but take-out service, Sheridan built an online shop overnight to start delivering groceries to people’s homes.

“We have this great food. We need to get it to people that need it,” he said.

The new arm of the Legends Haul business sells a variety of meat cuts, seafood, plant-based proteins, produce, pantry staples and other goods. It also allows customers to order restaurant favourites from local restaurants — such as Café Media’s waffles and Livia Bakery’s sourdough loaves, which are two of the most popular products — for delivery.

The company is now making more than 200 deliveries daily, six days a week.

What used to be a team of about 30 people has already grown by 10, Sheridan said, noting he’s been able to hire some friends and former clients who have had to close their doors.

It’s too soon to tell how much of a difference the new business will make financially for Legends Haul, he said. Revenue is up, but Sheridan has had to invest money into the service, including hiring more workers.

But the investment is long term, he said. Sheridan anticipates the company will keep delivering groceries after the pandemic is under control. He believes consumer behaviour will change as a result of physical distancing guidelines.

“They’re going to come out of this and they’re going to want to have an online platform and a delivery experience.”

———

Aleksandra Szaflarska, co-owner of Together We’re Bitter, a craft brewery in Kitchener, Ont.

Aleksandra Szaflarska sensed early on that COVID-19 might upend her business in a significant way.

As one of the owners of Kitchener, Ont. craft brewery Together We’re Bitter, she was hearing stories about the virus from other leaders at the co-operative who had links to the health-care community.

“The severity of what was going to happen, and what was indeed happening around the world, was made pretty clear to us really early on,” she said.

Those early warnings helped the group of 10 owners anticipate and adapt their business, shifting quickly from a walk-in bar and retail space that sold primarily by the glass, into an online beer delivery service.

“We had to set up the website and figure out bottling, which was just a small part of our business prior to that,” she said.

“It’s a completely different business than it was a month ago.”

Szaflarska said having 10 leaders in the co-operative helped Together We’re Bitter stay nimble in the transition.

“I wouldn’t have been able to set up an online store by myself,” she said, “but between all of us we have the expertise on the team.”

Every Wednesday, the team of owners hold a group call, and together they’ve established a back-up plan that would allow one of them to step in on certain operational responsibilities if another person gets sick with COVID-19.

“In a lot of ways, crises like this can bring teams together,” Szaflarska said.

The owners are trying to maintain human connections with each other too, so they’re not only focused on crisis mode. They recently organized a virtual team chat with staff over a beer that emphasized sharing stories about their lives outside the business.

“Because we’re constantly just talking about how to react to what’s going on around us and what to do next, you lose out on some of that time for personal connection,”she said.

“And it’s really important when you’ve got such a big group.”

———

Amanda Hall, co-founder and CEO of clean tech firm Summit Nanotech in Calgary.

COVID-19 has hit most companies hard, but Amanda Hall’s Calgary-based lithium extraction technology company has faced double the trouble.

Hall spent most of the year lining up $1.5 million through an oversubscribed funding round for her Summit Nanotech business, but when a price war broke out between Saudi Arabia and Russia emerged just as COVID-19 started to spread, backers and other potential investors began to pull out.

The money she had amassed shrunk to $750,000 within two weeks.

“I’ve got all these people committed and signing slowly one at a time, but until that money’s in my bank account, I probably won’t sleep very well,” she said.

“I could still lose investors, so that scares me.”

Hall had to make the tough decision to withhold her salary for three months and slash the compensation of two of her top earners. She’s mulling layoffs, but hoping she can avoid them, even though the frightening news keeps coming.

The government and university labs she uses recently closed, but she was determined not to let COVID-19 strangle her small business’ progress.

She moved lab operations to a “Breaking Bad-style” trailer with a lab.

“My best case scenario budget was closing the $1.5 million, and accessing all sorts of government grants and being able to leverage all this money and move to the field quickly with two prototypes…but I ended up with my worst case scenario,” she said.

“Now everything I do has to be lean and mean, so we’re only taking one prototype to the field, not two. It cuts our market penetration in half and it also makes time to get to market a little bit longer. It’s all doable, but it’s not what I expected and my expectations are dashed.”

———

Michelle Donnelly, co-founder of Lark, a Toronto-based water delivery service.

Launching an eco-friendly bottled water brand in the midst of a pandemic is a risky venture, but Michelle Donnelly says she didn’t have much of a choice.

The Toronto entrepreneur was nearly two years into planning the rollout for Lark, her new Ontario spring water business, when COVID-19 began to generate worldwide attention. She continued moving forward with opening its production facility on March 14, in order to deliver reuseable glass bottles to local hotels and restaurants.

But a few hours after the operations started up, Donnelly says it became clear Lark would have to substantially change its business model.

“We did our pilot run, and then were basically locked down,” Donnelly said.

“I mean, talk about insane timing, right?”

With hotels reduced to skeleton staff and many restaurants closed, Donnelly’s $250,000 business was left without its key customers. She sat down with her husband and business partner to devise an emergency plan that would revamp Lark with a direct-to-consumer delivery model.

“We need to do something because it’s self funded,” she said.

“We’re footing the bill, there’s no investors to fall back on. We have to pay the rent, all of that. So we strategized the evening of March 15th, pivoted the next day to change the bio on Instagram and a bit of the description on the landing of our site, and went after home delivery.”

Donnelly has positioned Lark’s service as a “minimalist milkman” that caters to households in the Greater Toronto Area who want to reduce their use of plastics and landfill waste. But since she’s a new business, she can’t tap into the current federal emergency wage support measures, which would’ve eased some of pressure of paying the facility manager who now doubles as a delivery man.

She remains hopeful that Lark will persevere through this uncertain period.

“When some of the restrictions lifted, hopefully in the next eight weeks or so, we’ll already have a bit of a name out there, and then we can just build off of that,” Donnelly said.

“It’s a terrible situation for my business, but my family’s healthy,” she added. “All I can do is try to make the best of it.”

———

Darren Smith, owner of Halifax Home Inspections.

There are few jobs in real estate more hands-on than a home inspector, so the coronavirus outbreak has forced Darren Smith to rethink everything about how he works.

The owner of Halifax Home Inspections said he thought about shutting down entirely, since business is already down about 75 per cent, but decided to keep working for those people truly in need of buying a home.

He warns clients though that it won’t be a regular inspection, as he tries to avoid touching things in the house as much as possible, even with gloves.

“I tell my customers up front, it’s not going to be a normal inspection and I just do the best I can,” said Smith.

“We used to kind of like, turn on all the appliances, open every window in the house, that kind of thing. There’s none of that now.”

He said that so far, he only felt uneasy before the state of emergency was declared and he was inspecting small apartment buildings where tenants were still around.

“I felt very uncomfortable with that, having all those people around, for their sake and for mine.”

He now insists that no one else is in the house while he’s working. One homeowner refused to leave so he turned down the job, but Smith said overall people have been very understanding.

“The one thing I’ve noticed is just how reasonable everybody is being, and accepting of my precautions, and nobody’s making a big stink about it.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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