Survival Of The Fittest . . . Area Business Owners & New Entrepreneurs Adapt To The COVID-19 Pandemic
A worldwide health crisis has decimated economies across the world, shutting down businesses and forcing people to stay in their homes for extended periods of time.
Yet even with no end in sight before society returns to a new normal, there are success stories in Windsor and Essex County where battle-hardened entrepreneurs have risen up despite the heavy odds and made their businesses successful or even opened up new companies.
But, it hasn’t been easy.
According to a survey conducted by Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island, more than 53 percent of respondents in the hospitality and tourism sector reported they had to close their businesses entirely and more than 63 percent had to lay off staff.
And of those who reported layoffs, more than 70 percent said they had to lay off more than half their staff.
Quite clearly the pandemic has had a huge effect on business volumes with more than 53 percent of respondents saying that business had dropped by as much as 75 percent.
Ryan Donally, Manager of Investment and Corporate Marketing with the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation, says different sectors were affected in different ways by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Businesses that were not able or not set up to sell digitally using curbside pickup have been hit much more seriously than those who could,” says Donally. “Devonshire Mall, for instance, generates upwards of 20,000 people on a busy day and it was completely shut down.”
Donally mentions that until the border between Canada and the USA opens again for anything other than essential travel, the hard times will continue, because many people cross over using the bridge or tunnel, in both directions, for shopping trips or restaurant visits.
“In addition, consumer confidence is an issue and how businesses handle their eventual re-opening will play a huge role,” Donally comments.
For many, the most challenging aspects of re-opening their businesses will be handling physical distancing, regaining consumer confidence and establishing and maintaining cleanliness protocols.
And in order to help businesses across Canada survive and pay their employees throughout this crisis, the Federal Government launched the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy on April 11.
The program, extended to August 29, 2020, provides 75 percent of remuneration paid by employers whose businesses showed a 15 percent drop in revenue in March and a 30 percent drop in April and May.
By mid-May the government had processed and approved 215,661 claims and paid out $5.7 billion to help businesses across Canada survive.
According to Statistics Canada, in Ontario alone, almost 380,000 workers were laid off in April, an increase of 2,496 percent from April 2019.
Many were eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which pays $500 a week for up to 16 weeks. By May 25, more than 8.33 million applications had been processed and $42.59 million had been paid out to qualified Canadians.
Despite all the heartbreak and decimation faced by businesses across most sectors, there were some bright moments created by people willing to put their livelihoods on the line in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic.
What follows is by no means an exhaustive list, but it shows some great examples of local entrepreneurs and their willpower.India 47 Restaurant + Bar
It was hardly a recipe for success when Nick Aujla and four partners, with absolutely no experience in the hospitality industry, decided to launch a new restaurant just as the COVID-19 crisis sent the economy into a downward spiral.
But launch they did, and despite offering just takeout services, India 47 has been an unqualified success.
“We opened on April 8 and we sold out within 90 minutes,” explains Aujla, a second-generation Ford Motor Company assembly line worker, who now runs the five-litre engine line at Essex Engine Plant.
“It has been amazing,” he expresses. “We have done very little advertising because we haven’t really had the money, so it’s all been word-of-mouth and it’s been great.”
Aujla and his partners signed an agreement to take over the former Webb’s Steak, Seafood, Burgers and Bar location at 1640 Lesperance Road in January and had just received the keys when everything shut down.
“There was no precedent for all of this and even though we didn’t qualify for any government funds because we were a new business, we decided to go ahead anyway,” says Aujla.
They had already hired a Chef from a successful Indian restaurant in Toronto and another with restaurant experience in India and they now lead a six person kitchen staff, which is busy every night and also during lunch hours.
“We started out with five nights a week and then expanded to seven nights and it’s been unbelievable,” Aujla states.
On Mother’s Day, for instance, they had to defer 30 meals to the following day because of unexpected demand.
Offering traditional Indian food, the restaurant is currently serving about 40 percent of its planned menu because many items are best served directly from the kitchen to the dining room.
The menu includes a variety of Naan breads, Samosas, Onion Bhaji, Chicken Tikka Masala, Lamb or Chicken Vindaloo, Lamb, Chicken or Vegetable Biryani, Butter Chicken and Tandoori Chicken.
Along with his partners, Aujla has redecorated the dining area with murals depicting key dates in Indian history, beginning with the country’s partition from British India into the separate dominion states of India and Pakistan, which occurred in 1947.
As a result of the shutdown, the owners had six weeks during which time they were able to dedicate their efforts into launching the business.
“Looking back, it was crazy, but maybe the world needs more crazy right now,” says Aujla laughing.
Now, without knowing when they will finally be able to open their dining room ( until the Ontario government gives the go ahead), the partners are still making plans to comply with whatever rules health authorities put in place.
“We’re going to make sure the tables are sufficiently spaced apart and we will be placing hand sanitizers on every table,” Aujla notes. “We also plan to expand our patio services so we can accommodate more diners without the dining room becoming crowded.”
Williams Food Equipment
With a large portion of their clientele coming from the hospitality industry, the pandemic, which shutdown restaurants and bars across the region, hit Williams Food Equipment, 2150 Ambassador Drive in Windsor, particularly hard.
“We had to make some hard choices and lay off staff,” admits Co-owner Reid Williams of his family owned and operated business. “But, in the preparation for re-opening we have started to call people back.”
Operating for over 50 years selling high quality cookware and kitchenware, this “Candy Store for Cooks” already had an online presence for a number of years that continued throughout the shutdown. The store remained open for curbside pickup and local delivery during this time.
Williams indicates their showroom could have opened in mid-May, but he wanted to make sure all the plans were in place to make sure his staff and customers have a safe shopping experience. The showroom was re-opened June 1 with parking lot pickups and online ordering still offered.
He adds that adjustments have been made at all cashier stations to ensure safety, all staff will wear masks and sanitizers, and gloves and masks are available to customers as they enter the store.
“Masks will be optional, but if people see our staff wearing them, it may make it more comfortable for them to do so as well,” believes Williams.
Since most of their customers are looking for specific items or specific categories of goods, one-way shopping lanes probably won’t be necessary.
“Unlike shoppers in a grocery store, our shoppers are a bit more targeted in what they are looking for,” he explains.
Williams concludes his section with: “We’ve all seen the good, the bad and the ugly during this crisis and we plan to come down fully on the side of the good and make people as comfortable as possible to be in our store and that includes staff and customers.”
And keeping on the good side, in May, the business proudly donated $10,000 to the Unemployed Help Centre of Windsor Inc., food bank).
Four long time friends have built a new business during this pandemic with the recent launch of Disinfect Express, a completely local company.
Dan Spada, Marco Tontodonati, Michael Quaggiotto and Marco Scipione opened up in mid-May and the company has picked up a number of clients who need disinfection services at their residences or small businesses across the region.
The disinfectant presents itself as a fog when it is sprayed and gets into every nook and cranny, which many cleaning services may miss or forget.
“It’s all completely non-toxic and eliminates 99.999% of virus and airborne pathogens,” explains Spada. “COVID-19 changed the world as we know it and we all collectively decided to start something, which not only protects our family, but also people right across the area.”
“When we come out the other side of all this, we will probably continue to need these kinds of services,” he believes.
Spada and his partners are also employed in a variety of industries and all were affected in different ways during the shutdown which, for now, is slowly being lifted.
“We wanted to do something completely locally-owned,” Spada adds. “We’re not a franchise and all the revenue we generate stays in the community and is being pumped back into the business.”
For the moment, the five partners are the company’s sole employees, but Spada expects that to change as business picks up.
Gauthier Roofing and Siding
Ron Gauthier, President of the 52 year old roofing company, was ahead of the game when pandemic restrictions were put in place by the provincial government in mid-March.
“In the interest of customer and employee safety, I decided to operate our office remotely and suspend all installations, including site visits for estimates, about two weeks before it was mandated by the government,” says Gauthier.
With much of the technology already in place before the pandemic, Gauthier added a few more options for customers so they could make selections and allow Gauthier’s staff to sell and line up work in time for when the restrictions were lifted on May 19.
“Our website was used in much the same way as always which, for product selection, is basically a starting point since final selections shouldn’t be made from online images,” explains Gauthier. “From there, we either mailed samples or arranged for customers to pick them up curbside from our distributors.”