Five rural Alberta entrepreneurs share their COVID-19 small business lessons
We go “off the beaten path” in partnership with Linda Hoang, Alberta influencer and business owner, to hear how small businesses have navigated the pandemic.
By ATB Financial 21 August 2020 9 min read
Shopping local was already on trend before COVID-19 hit Alberta small businesses. Now, it’s become essential, as our province comes together to support Alberta entrepreneurs.
That’s why we partnered with Linda Hoang—an Alberta influencer, small business owner and passionate supporter of local businesses—to create “Off the Beaten Path,” a road trip itinerary that highlights Alberta small businesses between Edmonton and Calgary. Linda has taken the trip herself and has shared her journey on her blog, along with the detailed itinerary, so you can take a day trip yourself (psst: she’ll also be sharing some incentives from each of the businesses available until September 7, plus a prize pack giveaway that ends Sunday, August 23).
These Alberta entrepreneurs have faced challenges of all kinds over the past months. Inspired by their resiliency, we wanted to hear their stories of the small business challenges that COVID-19 has caused, and the insights they’ve gained through the pandemic.
First stop: Prestigio Bakery in Leduc, a Portuguese bakery and bistro
When Elizabeth Sousa and her husband opened Prestigio in 2018, they were the first bakery in town. Now, they’re still the go-to spot for their European-style atmosphere, coveted custard tarts, donuts and other drool-worthy baked goods—all made from scratch in-house.
The pandemic hit Elizabeth and her team hard.
“No one was coming in,” she reflects. Elizabeth added delivery and curbside pick-up, and slowly things began picking up again. Now, she shares that they’re busier than before COVID-19 started. “I think a lot of people found out about us who didn’t before, just through word of mouth.”
COVID-19 forced Elizabeth to prioritize and shift how they made their baked goods.
“There were some things we had to avoid baking because they were more expensive or the shelf-life was less. Some items would have to be pre-ordered, instead of baking them hoping people would come in.”
Take stock of your inventory, whether you bake like Elizabeth or you order in products to sell, and see what you can avoid buying or modify for a time. Could you make some items made-to-order only? Or maybe you poll your customers to see what you can’t live without and limit your inventory to those select items?
Second stop: The Butterfly Boutique in Millet
Owners Kirsten Bles and her mom, Jose Maria Bles have run the boutique together for 11 years, but The Butterfly Boutique has been in Millet for 41 years! Their curated collection of women’s clothing is primarily made in Canada. What sets this hidden gem apart from other clothing store experiences is their passion for creating a one-on-one experience for each customer. Service is what they do best.
COVID-19 was the catalyst for quite a few challenges and changes for Kirsten and Jose Maria. When the pandemic hit, they had to close their doors for two months. Pre-pandemic, they had two locations. COVID-19 forced them to shut down their Beaumont location, while creating and launching an online store.
Integrating their POS systems proved to be a bigger challenge than expected. Their website used a different POS system than their brick and mortar location, which made it challenging to track inventory accurately. Kirsten and her team are still hard at work integrating the two systems.
Since their customer experience drew loyal customers from near and far, going online in itself has been challenging.
“We’re primarily a brick and mortar store, and we like to create a certain atmosphere and personalized experience, and when you go online that in-person element is gone,” explains Kirsten. “I don’t think you can replicate that online.”
Despite the frustrations that going online caused for the owners, The Butterfly Boutique’s customers are incredibly loyal and jumped on the opportunity to support them.
“The power of customer loyalty is huge,” Kirsten exclaims. “When times are tough, people really do support you.”
When you’ve put in the work to give every customer a personalized experience in-person, their loyalty to you can transcend pandemic-related barriers. Continue to nurture your relationships with loyal customers digitally, whether that’s by having a live chat option on your website, including a personalized note or gift with an online order, or sending photos of specific items in-store.
Third stop: Eastside Eatery in Lacombe
Meghan Phillips used to make huge batches of her famous soups at home and give them to friends. Now she gets paid to do it! She’s owned Eastside Eatery for nine years, where they rotate through 60 different soups and 80 different cheesecakes, all made in-house along with their sandwiches and other menu items. She loves the connection people build over good, homemade food (or “grandma’s cooking” as she calls it).
Meghan was forced to lay off all her staff in March—she’s happy to report that half of them are back now. When she was running things solo, she had to take on all of their responsibilities herself. She reduced the operating hours, since she has small children at home.
“Luckily we had huge support,” Meghan shares. “People were able to come during our hours (8am–3pm) because they weren’t at work. People drove from all over to get something they normally wouldn’t have been able to because of the hours.”
The pandemic ended up giving Meghan some pleasant surprises and opportunities to learn.
“We’ve been slightly more profitable than normal, because I’ve been more conscious of how many times I go grocery shopping and what I’m buying,” Meghan explains. “Before, I was stockpiling for the ‘what if’ and now we can’t afford that. I’m more aware of what products I buy and how quickly they’re turning over—inventory management and awareness have been huge areas of growth for me.”
“[The pandemic] helped me gain a new perspective of what I want out of my business and what my business needs to offer people,” shares Meghan. “I’ve always had a huge appreciation for my staff, but taking on all they’ve done by myself gave me a whole different perspective. Having people’s help who know what they’re doing and want to help is a game changer.”
Times of crisis can expose what you need for your business, and what you can live without. Are there items you’ve been buying out of routine that you could cut back on and save some cash? Maybe there are some expenses that you have on auto-pay that you could reevaluate? One thing your business most likely needs are its staff. If you’ve had to lay off staff, can you reduce your business’s operating hours strategically, to align with your most busy times?
Fourth stop: Cowtown Brewing Company in Didsbury
What would cause Bhupinder Gill, a former mechanical quality inspector with nine years of experience working in Fort McMurray, to open his own microbrewery? Turns out, he’s got quite the knack for it.
He was already home brewing while living up north. His experience managing three-million dollar projects gave him his business-savviness. To top it off, his birthplace in North India is famous for cattle trading and he grew up on a cattle farm—the beer, the business and even the brewery’s name all fit together! Cowtown is known for their IPA, and their newly released Bombay Chai Tea beer has been selling out fast.
Sales were a challenge when COVID-19 hit, so Bhupinder started doing free deliveries with no minimum purchase both in town and in Calgary, with a great response. He even faced some of the common COVID-19 challenges with some creative thinking and humour—to make sure they kept their payment contactless, he strapped their POS system to the end of a hockey stick.
Bhupinder encourages Alberta small business owners to make their branding distinct and keep it consistent, and highlight that the product is Alberta-based or made. He’s found that highlighting the local aspect gets more people interested and buying.
Deliver the “wow” factor. Whether that means free delivery on any product, or taking pride in the details (Bhupinder had the barcodes on his beer cans designed to be the shape of Alberta), your customers will notice the effort you’re taking to delight them and enjoy the experience. Plus, going above and beyond in creative ways—like strapping your POS system to a hockey stick—makes you memorable, which hopefully means return business.
Final stop: The Diner at Shorty’s in Crossfield
Colleen and Lindsay Harder are veterans of the restaurant industry. During their 26 years of marriage, they’ve owned three restaurants, including the successful seafood restaurant Pelican Pier in Calgary for 23 years. An unexpected illness caused the couple to sell their restaurant, but post-recovery they were itching to get back into the game. They opened The Diner at Shorty’s in June 2019 in a converted car garage, where they serve their famous fish and chips, tacos and burgers and take time to sit down and chat with their customers.
The pandemic forced Colleen and Lindsay to shut the diner down completely for two months. They were pretty new to Crossfield at the time—they still got business but not quite enough to keep everything going. Now they’ve reopened and are the busiest they’ve ever been.
They had some press coverage sharing their story, struggles and what they overcame, and that drew a lot of people. It even encouraged their previous customers to come back! Plus, Crossfield locals who never knew about them were encouraged to go, so they ended up getting lots of community support.
Inventory has proved to be a challenge. “It’s tough to get the inventory you want,” Colleen explains. “Sometimes things are in stock, sometimes it’s not. One time you’ll go and they don’t have the root beer in stock, the next time you can’t get the cheese.”
While they’ve been in the business long enough to have navigated some intense highs and lows, Colleen and Lindsay did learn a few things through the pandemic. “You have to be online, and get information out to people so they know what’s going on,” Lindsay shares. They primarily used Facebook to keep their customers in the loop and stay connected.
“Be positive,” Lindsay adds. “People are drawn to that, and it creates a positive atmosphere that we all want to come back to.”
Colleen and Lindsay talk about the day that they reopened—they were shocked to see so many of their regulars flood in. “We missed our regulars, and they missed us. We wanted to hug them when they came in!” they laugh. And those regulars kept coming back, some every single day, and they would bring their families and friends.
Attitude matters. COVID-19 has caused so much grief, and even for those who haven’t been directly affected, life is still different. If you can show up with an honest, yet positive attitude (offline and online), the hope that brings is infectious. Especially during times of crisis, people want to be around other people who make them smile and feel comfortable—it’s as simple as having an upbeat attitude, asking a customer how they’re holding up, and practicing the “smize” while wearing your mask.
A consistent COVID-19 small business insight
Across the board, every Alberta entrepreneur said they were blown away by the support of their loyal customers and local communities. Many businesses ended up selling more than they ever did pre-pandemic. If you’re able to get the word out to your community through friends and family, word of mouth, an online presence and social media, you may be surprised just how many people show up.
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