We're still standing... and serving, and selling!

We're still standing... and serving, and selling!

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The past nineteen months have been a challenging time for most small business owners, who provide our essential services, local jobs and are an invaluable touchpoint in our communities. The COVID-19 pandemic has proved as much of a financial crisis as a health one, significantly impacting local business owners and their employees. Despite these difficulties, many have met these challenges head-on. That’s why now, it’s important to take the time to celebrate and appreciate their achievements.

Recognizing that several small businesses were hit very hard during the past several months and are still trying to recover, there have also been local businesses that have been unable to financially survive the pandemic. About 53% of small business owners in Nova Scotia don’t expect to return to pre-COVID operations for some time. The projections are quite similar for most of the country's 1.14 million small businesses still lamenting empty dining rooms, stores and cash registers, and fretting about how they can rebound from the pandemic's economic impacts.

Here in HRM, there have been some success stories - stories of resilience, perseverance, trust, community, and kindness. Here’s how three local businesses made their way through the pandemic.

A PRE-PANDEMIC START

As an urban planner and commercial real estate consultant, Kourosh Rad had no restaurant experience when he took over The Garden restaurant in downtown Halifax. However, by February 2020, he opened his doors, after securing the right team to help him serve the community with a fresh, new farm-to-table dining experience, coupled with hand-crafted cocktails in a relaxed indoor/outdoor, exquisite atmosphere. Two weeks later, he had to close the restaurant for the first of three government-mandated shutdowns.

STARTING A BUSINESS DURING THE PANDEMIC

Sandra Drover had the space, the inventory, the systems and everything else in place for the opening of her new casual wear boutique, PHIT’cetera, in July 2020. However, when the pandemic became more than a two-week shut-down, she knew she was in for some tough decisions. Armed with uncertainty and a host of other challenges, Drover decided to make the switch and open as an online retail store and set everything up over the ensuing four months. In November 2020, she began selling her products online and making plans for an eventual physical store opening.

EXPERIENCE DOESN’T MEAN IT WAS EASY

Even though Dave O’Connor has owned and operated Glow Events for the past 27 years, he says there was nothing that could have prepared him for the past 19 months. Starting with their signature signs, Glow events has been growing steadily over the past several years, outfitting hundreds of local events with various supplies and entertainment, operating retail stores and being involved somehow in almost every small and large event in the province. That success and experience didn’t help when O’Connor was blindsided in March 2020 and he was forced to shut business down, laying off 70 people in one day.

CHALLENGES: AGAINST THE ODDS

One of the hardest things for small businesses to survive the pandemic has been the uncertainty. O’Connor and most small business owners acknowledge that COVID-19 had a mind of its own and it seemed no one could predict how life and work would change on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

“The not-knowing when we could open back up, for how many customers and understanding group limits has been one of the biggest challenges,” says Dave O’Connor. “Public health regulations were constantly changing and just as we would start to plan and be on the upswing, we were smacked with another shut-down.”

Kourosh Rad says it’s been especially tough to witness the lack of patience that some members of the public had when the restaurant announced that, in compliance with public health guidelines, they would require their patrons to be vaccinated in order to visit the restaurant. “I wasn’t prepared for the vilification both online and in person,” Rad says. “Our staff had death threats and people were very hateful on social media. I feel that we were judged much too harshly for taking the right steps to keep our staff and our community safe.”

Rad also says that, along with many other small businesses, especially in the service sector, it’s been hard to keep things at a normal operating level. “There are food shortages, staff shortages, prices for everything have gone up and it’s been hard to keep things moving forward at times.”

Drover agrees. As a new business, she’s been careful not to bring in too much inventory, however, she says it’s sometimes gone the opposite way. “I’ve had a few key suppliers who haven’t been able to produce their garments because they can’t source the materials or the people to make the clothing,” she says. “I’m very particular about the suppliers I use and am conscious of the entire supply chain and life cycle of a garment, making sure suppliers are focused on reducing their environmental impact. When some spots were hit harder than others with COVID, I had to find other sustainable suppliers for inventory.”

These issues were only a few of what many small businesses experienced during the pandemic and now, there are new challenges with recovery efforts, including staffing, new and ever-changing training and safety protocols, and the policing of mask wearing and vaccinations. Many owners say that compared to big businesses that have more staff and resources, they were left to their own devices, resources and knowledge to find solutions to the shifting issues that transpired on an almost daily basis.

“You can’t put this into a business plan,” says O’Connor. “Over the years, we’ve made small changes and pivots to grow our business, but this was unprecedented and none of us could have anticipated the drastic impact and changes to our business.”

OPPORTUNITIES AND ‘THE PIVOT’

Facing some very unique challenges during the pandemic, the extent to which small businesses ventured through the effects of the restrictions and shutdowns varies from business to business. Overwhelmingly though, much of the small business community in HRM found innovative ways to adapt and ‘pivot’ – the key word the past 19 months.

Having a strong local economy and connections to the community also helped businesses survive. Many of the changes implemented by businesses helped keep them afloat but their creativity, innovative thinking and adaptability is what led them through successfully.

“The day after we shut down, I immediately had to lay off all of 20 of my staff, except my chef who stayed to help with the first of my pivots,” says Rad. “I decided to offer take out coffee and treats to our community.” But with a background in urban planning and being new to the restaurant business, Rad wasn’t yet equipped to make specialty coffee with their espresso machine. “When the very first customer that came in wanted a macchiato,” he says. “I quickly googled how to make it.”

As the two weeks grew longer and the lockdowns kept coming, more and more changes were made. “People were shut-in, they couldn’t see their families and friends and we wanted to help service our community.” says Rad. “After the second lock-down when people were encouraged to stay close to home, we made Thanksgiving dinners that were ordered from people near and far who couldn’t see their families. That’s when I knew that not only was the community helping us through this, but we were also helping them by providing a small connection through food.”

O’Connor also came up with ideas to evolve through this new limited business structure and, he says, some of them worked and some of them had to be adjusted day by day.

“Being in the event industry, we’re used to solving problems. We purchased hand sanitizing stations which were needed for public spaces and small gatherings,” says O’Connor. “We altered our Christmas lights show, Glow Gardens, and since our scope of events have changed to smaller, more personal events, we modified our inventory to make them unique.” O’Connor says they also got a small boost from new business within the film industry that, ironically, yet gratefully, wanted to do business in Nova Scotia because of our safety protocols.

Sandra Drover says that being able to pivot as a brand new business wasn’t as hard as she thought. Her clothing is defined as casual and athletic wear and people were looking for these kinds of items while working from and staying close to home.

“I was able to quickly switch to an online business right away,” she says. “I offered curbside pick-up and the community really got behind me, in terms of buying local.” Even though it was out of necessity, Drover also found new suppliers whose values aligned with hers, allowing her to expand her inventory.

RESILIENCE and COMMUNITY

Small business owners have experienced unique challenges, substantial changes, and sleepless nights yet many have also been rewarded with overwhelming kindness from their communities.

Drover, O’Connor, and Rad all agree that the province did the best they could to not only keep Nova Scotians safe, but to keep our economy going. The provincial and federal subsidies and grants helped small businesses keep their doors open in some cases and escape complete peril in others.

“We’ve all learned the meaning of resilience this past year and a half,” says Drover. “Keeping Nova Scotians as safe as possible was the biggest priority and that we’ve done well.”

“The government subsidies helped but we’re still carrying lots of debt,” says O’Connor. “They allowed us to find opportunities to work during the shut-down, to find other ways to diversify our revenue and to regroup somewhat.”

These business owners also agree that their community and their people are what kept them going.

“The amount of love and kindness from the community to support local businesses has been both a welcome surprise, but also an acknowledgment of knowing that we’re in this together,” says Rad. “People want us to succeed and I’m so grateful for that.”

Drover says she’s overwhelmed by the amount of local support she’s had from repeat customers who have visited her store either online or in person. “I’m in this because I want to make an impact and make a difference, and my community is right behind me all the way, helping me along – that means a lot.”

O’Connor says that even though the challenges he had this year were ‘off the charts’, he says there was no chance he’d give up. “We have a small mountain to climb to get out of this, but we’re up for the challenge,” he says. “My team and I have built something strong and I would never let them down, just as they’ve stuck with me and put their heart and soul into this business, especially over the past months.”

KEY TO ECONOMIC RECOVERY

Small and medium sized businesses are significant contributors to the Canadian economy. For context, small businesses made up 98.0% of all employer businesses in Canada in 2020, employing 9.7 million individuals in Canada - approximately 64% of the total labour force. This demonstrates just how important and significant small business is in driving towards economic recovery in our cities and towns.

“There is no better time than now to support our local small businesses,” says Patrick Sullivan, President and CEO of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. “We need to help them continue to succeed because they are the backbone of our economy. They have shown determination and resilience during the pandemic. Given the extraordinary measures and investment they have made to continue operating, they are now counting on us to get behind them.”

There’s a common thread in what kept these three business owners going and what allowed them to survive the past 19 months: local connections, their community, and human kindness.

“I think we are going to come out of this stronger despite the adversity and the challenges, and because of the support from others,” says Rad. “The community gives us a profound feeling that’s hard to put into words other than… thank you.”

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