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Despite COVID-19, some small businesses are keeping community alive

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While it’s no secret that small businesses have encountered considerable hardship due to closures and restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, some business owners are remaining optimistic and finding ways to continue fostering communities.

For Kevin Allan and Dannah Melad, what started as a mission to make the best gluten-free cookies possible blossomed into Vanilla Bite Bakery, an online bakery they run right out of their apartment. The pair had initially started off making cookies for Allan’s father, who has celiac disease.

Starting their business in January during the pandemic posed some unique challenges, Allan says, but the two have still strived to foster relationships with their customers.

“We wanted to treat every customer with the same level of care like we treated my father,” he says, adding building a strong community was always a priority for them.

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According to Allan, Vanilla Bite chose to bypass delivery apps completely in order to have a more direct relationship with their customers. Instead, they started going through people they knew, as well as working with other businesses and Instagram influencers.

“It’s not just some random contractor from DoorDash who leaves it at the door and walks away. We actually have a dedicated employee who’s invested in the business, who cares about our customers, and who just happens to be very sociable,” says Allan.

Melad adds she has also connected with online business communities to learn more about growing the bakery and has partnered with other local businesses on their orders, when possible.

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Read more: ‘The universe has really expanded.’ How 3 small businesses pivoted in the pandemic

Like Melad and Allan, Alessia Peluso opened up her café, Emily Rose Cafe, during the pandemic.

According to Peluso, the café is named after both of her grandmothers, one of whom ran a restaurant for almost 50 years.

“My life has revolved around food … my family always revolved around food — it’s like our love language — so I wanted to do something on a smaller scale,” she says.

The hardships she faced opening her business during the pandemic included pivoting and adjusting to ongoing changes in COVID-19 regulations, says Peluso.

“It was a little difficult at times because there was never really a clear message of what we’re able to do and not to do … it was really changing.”

On a more positive note, Peluso says the struggles she faced created a sense of community for small businesses. Being tucked away in a residential neighbourhood, the support she immediately got from neighbours was heartwarming.

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“We were lucky enough that people could still come in and grab stuff … People working from home would come in and they could chat with you for two to five minutes while you’re making their coffee,” says Peluso.

“I think that was a real positive considering everything going on, you could still build relationships.”

Having small talk with local customers as well as learning people’s names and their orders has blossomed into relationships, which is amazing, she says.

“All interactions that we get on a daily basis have been quite uplifting and pretty great,” says Peluso.

Read more: The strain on family businesses during COVID-19

Danish Yusuf, CEO of Zensurance, says the impact on small businesses has varied from industry to industry. According to Yusuf, the ones that have been struggling the most include small coffee shops, nail salons and plumbing businesses, many of which have shut down during COVID-19.

“On the flip side, more white-collar jobs (like) the consultants, the engineers, lawyers, paralegals, they’ve actually seen their business increase quite a bit,” he says.

“What we are now seeing with this mixed space of, ‘Are we opening? Are we not opening?’ is there’s a lot of uncertainty, which causes stress to the business owner.”

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Yusuf adds they had lots of demand from owners for insurance after losing money during periods of closures. Many restaurants, for example, bought more furniture ahead of preparing to reopen only for Ontario to shut down again, he says.

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Restaurants have been particularly hard hit, he says. “Food has been the hardest hit from an insurance standpoint, particularly where they serve liquor.”

When it comes to advice for business owners on reopening, Yusuf says there is a lot of uncertainty, particularly about what the demand will be like for restaurants and stores.

Read more: More than 200K small businesses could close permanently amid pandemic: CFIB

“For business owners, it’s just a matter of how certain you are that if you put in $20,000 of investments that your particular style of business will reopen. There’s that aspect of whether you want to invest or not,” he says.

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Additionally, Yusuf says noting the modified behaviour of consumers ordering online is also important to consider.

“You have to determine how much of that modified behaviour is going to impact you and whether or not you dabble in that new world of demand,” he says, pointing to an example of a hair salon that started doing hair treatment lessons via Zoom.

The online demand also means businesses can compete and serve customers from around the world, he adds.

For those who have opened a business during the pandemic, Yusuf says there are countless examples of companies that started when times were tough and ended up becoming big.

“Many people have started businesses in virtual health care, in remote care services, in food delivery … there are a lot of opportunities. So if you’re looking to start a business, it could be a fantastic time,” he says.

“And there’s a lot of capital available to support people. You need to have the right business and the right pitch, but there’s so much capital available to fund good ideas.”

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According to Derek Hopfner, director of revenue at Ownr, the percentage of new food and service restaurants, bars, cafés, businesses — relative to other business categories — jumped 175 per cent.

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What this means, Hopfner says, is entrepreneurs are planning for the future and being proactive.

Looking through a macro lens of the food and beverage lens specifically, Hopfner says it shows there’s a pent-up demand being anticipated amongst Canadians who are looking to spend on tourism, food and beverage when it’s safe to do so.

“I think there’s a general excitement in the community to get out of our houses and meet up with friends and family and share food and conversation in a public space, where we’ve all been bubbled up over the last 14 months,” he says.

“Globally, I think it is a shift to realizing the importance of these types of businesses to regain a sense of community.”

Read more: Canadian businesses owned by women taking nearly twice as long to recover from COVID-19

These entrepreneurs are starting a business to foster that sense of community, says Hopfner, adding post-pandemic things like restaurants are a vital part of a vibrant and inclusive environment.

“We’re all really excited to see what post-pandemic life looks like and we’re also appreciative and reliant on the small business community,” he says.

“They employ so many individuals and are really a core of the community that we’re all looking to create again.”

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Allan says, looking forward, he’s thrilled about meeting customers in person and opening up a physical store.

“Opening a business during the peak lockdown in January, I feel like it puts us in a unique position to help Toronto come out of this,” he says.

Read more: Coronavirus is hurting small businesses. Here’s how to help

Peluso adds restaurants and those in the service industry have continued to pivot and find creative ways to adapt.

“It’s really amazing to see how people quickly adapt. And I think that’s going to create a lot of innovation in the future for restaurants and small businesses, because we’ve had to change so many things from our original planning,” she says.

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Additionally, Peluso hopes that when businesses start to reopen, customers will show respect and gratitude towards workers.

“It’s a lot on your mental health to cater to people, to take care of people, but also keep everybody safe to follow all the protocols,” she says.

Despite all the difficulties caused by the pandemic, Peluso says the positivity and sense of community have been incredible to experience.

“There’s been a huge sense of community, a huge sense of support for small businesses and that’s very endearing to see. I hope that sticks,” she says.

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