Food merchants must be nimble to survive
Niche outlets count on customer loyalty, community profile and adaptability
There’s a great, silent struggle going on behind hundreds of storefronts as small food businesses fight to survive.
Always adaptable, merchants now have to perform commercial contortions to sell their goods and retain customers until the COVID-19 cloud clears.
At La Boulangerie cafe and bakery on 4th Street S.W. near 25th Avenue, co-owner Shosh Cohen has devised the safest payment system imaginable for customers who’d rather not buy at the counter.
She holds the hand-held payment terminal up to the store window. The customer standing outside presses their card to the spot. Ka-ching, it works, payment received.
Cohen then races to a nearby door and places the bags on a chair outside.
She ducks back in, the customer takes the goodies, everybody waves, and that’s it. There’s no room for COVID-19 in that transaction.
“You do what the customer needs,” she says.
For the first weeks of the lockdown, Cohen feared disaster. There was virtually no business.
But she and master baker Navot Raz decided “we’re going to fight, we’re going to fight and survive. Now I’m so glad we didn’t close.”
Around Easter, business started to improve. Now, she says, “we’re not extremely busy, not like normal numbers, but we can make a living this month.”
Supermarkets are booming these days. But the niche outlets have to count on customer loyalty, community profile and their own ingenuity.
At Grumans Deli on Elbow Drive near Britannia Mall, owner Gail Fraiberg had a proud moment this week. She handed her landlord a cheque with full rent.
The landlord is very understanding, she says, and her ability to fulfil the monthly obligation almost made her cry. “My business is not down enough to use any of these programs from the government, and that’s fantastic, that’s a good thing.”
Cafe seating is closed but Grumans has always sold delicacies from a big counter display. There’s also a freezer with soups and prepared dishes.
This allowed Grumans to quickly flip business toward more takeout and delivery.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in sales from our freezer and deli case,” says Fraiberg, whose brother, Peter, owns the downtown Grumans on 11th Avenue S.W.
It didn’t happen magically, though. At both locations they saw the lockdown coming and did a lot of advance work.
Gail Norton’s Cookbook Company, on 11th Avenue S.W. near 6th Street, is a classic case of survival through diversification.
A culinary legend in Calgary, Norton has been on the scene since she first started selling cookbooks at a little outlet on 17th Avenue S.W.
Today, her unique business features the retail store, with many cookbooks and food items, and also a magnificent kitchen and associated restaurant. There she hosts corporate parties and runs a cooking school and catering business.
“All of that — the school, the catering, the corporate side — it all had to be cancelled,” Norton says.
But sales of pantry items and ingredients for home cooking are way up, and so is one quieter segment of her business — takeout of prepared meals.
“That’s always been part of what we do. We prepare those meals completely from scratch, no shortcuts.
“We had to pivot in that direction and it’s huge now — 10 times what we used to do.
“So, we are doing OK, we’re sustainable,” says Norton. “The sales are pared down, but so is staff and the business itself.”
She had to reduce staff temporarily from 15 to four. But other businesses have trouble keeping workers.
Niko Doikas, owner of Niko’s Pizza on 11th Street S.W. at 14th Avenue, says his business has risen slightly since the lockdown “but our challenge right now is finding staff or retaining staff.”
Overall, it’s not clear that most businesses will reopen their sitdown dining sections on May 14, the government’s tentative target for relaunch.
Norton says: “Technically we could, but we’re not in any hurry to open until it’s a lot more clear what direction we need to go.”
Norton fears the sit-down restaurant business in general will take a long time to revive.
“It’s very fragile. How to recover the convivial spirit of going out and eating with your friends? It’s going to be very difficult, I think.”
And yet, with agile entrepreneurs like these working in every corner of the city, recovery may not be so far off.
Shosh Cohen, co-owner of La Boulangerie cafe and bakery, and master baker Navot Raz decided “we’re going to fight, we’re going to fight and survive.”