Like everywhere else in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Whyte Avenue area hard. But the Edmonton entertainment district was struggling before March 2020.
The area has always been an attractive one for business, but that causes the rent to go up, making it difficult for smaller businesses to utilize those spaces.
Over the last few years, the avenue has lost multiple Starbucks and Second Cup locations. A Dairy Queen, David’s Tea and the massive Chapters store on the corner of Whyte Avenue and 105 Street also closed.
Once the pandemic hit, Army and Navy, the largest space on the street, also made the decision to close its doors.
Many “for rent” signs appear in storefronts along the avenue, making the once vibrant street feel empty.
“But I think the piece we did hear pretty strongly from businesses that we went into this not very strong.”
Jeff Nachtigall is one of the directors of Sugared and Spiced, a small bakery in the back alley off 103 Street and 83 Avenue.
He’s lived in the area almost 30 years and has seen Whyte Avenue go through a number of transition phases, but this was the first one he was a part of as a business owner.
His shop specialized in massive cakes and baked goods, from pepperoni and bacon hand pies, to brownies and cookies to meringues the size of your head.
Business had been good, especially during the month of the annual Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, but as the economy struggled, that changed.
So while Nachtigall’s shop was already in the middle of a pivot, they were forced to pivot again in a different direction in March 2020.
On one hand, Nachtigall says the second pivot was, in some ways, a blessing. It gave the shop the push to go in the direction it eventually would have needed to go to survive.
They set up online ordering, figured out what kind of baked goods people’s eating habits were shifting toward, and scaled back their cake operation to focus on smaller cakes for smaller gatherings.
But when the world shuts down and your shop counts on festivals in the area during the summer months, the toll can be heavy.
The shop closed for a week while the owners decided what they wanted to do to. And they shifted again.
To avoid having to close permanently, they shifted away from walk-in traffic and focused on pre-orders instead, but Nachtigall says they were close to closing up for good.
“Breaking even is one thing, but going further into debt isn’t an option.”
Vivid Print has been been open on Whyte Avenue since 2009. Co-owner Mark Wilson has also watched the avenue go through a number of transitions, but said he hasn’t seen a year tougher on the area than 2020 was.
When the provincial shutdown was put in place in March 2020, Vivid Print closed its doors. Wilson said they were lucky to already have had an online presence, and their biggest pivot was to figure out how to implement curbside pickup.
He says they noticed a downward decline in sales, but in talking with their neighbours, realized it mirrored what others were going through.
When retail locations began opening up again though, Vivid Print kept its doors closed. With the exception of a few months last summer when COVID-19 numbers were low, customers haven’t been in the shop.
“We are in a kind of a coasting mode. We’re nowhere close to where we should be.”
While Klassen says she’s been impressed with how many businesses have pivoted and how they’ve done so over the last year, the reality is the business association has work to do to help the avenue revitalize.
This is Part 1 of two looking at the struggles and success of Whyte Avenue before, during and after the pandemic. Read Part 2 here.