Food mer­chants must be nim­ble to sur­vive

Niche out­lets count on cus­tomer loy­alty, com­mu­nity profile and adapt­abil­ity

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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.

CHANTELLE KOLESNIK

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.”

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