Small Town Business in a Pandemic

Let me start this post by saying we are doing fine, we are not going anywhere, we are here for the long run. My purpose in writing the following is to give everyone a heads up on what small, independent business owners in our communities are having to deal with and to give you insight into why it won’t be business as usual for most of us despite the large chains and franchises carrying on in an almost business as usual manner. It is also to highlight the responsibility and role WE all play in shaping the future of our communities, and right here in this moment OUR choices and actions will have a profound affect on what our communities look like in the future.

For those of you that don’t know, we opened our Coffee Shop and Farm Market in Fauquier in July of 2018, and while we experienced a great deal of support there was always an underlying current of thought and expectation that we must be crazy, it wouldn’t work, we would become just another one of those flash in the pan here today gone tomorrow businesses that seems to plague small towns everywhere but most particularly here in the North.

We are happy to say that the business exceeded our expectations and while it certainly won’t make us millionaires, we were successful in creating a business with sufficient income that it supported both our business and family needs. We have relied entirely on free advertising opportunities and word of mouth to get our business out there. And it worked. We were doing well, so well in fact that plans for adding an addition to expand seating and market space were in the works to be put in place this summer. My daughter left her job at the Coop in Moonbeam to come work in the kitchen here to help meet the steadily increasing demand. Our sales income for 2020 as of March 14th was nearly double the same period the previous year, with spring just around the corner we hadn’t even hit our busy season yet.

The province wide closure of everything on March 15th was the beginning of a significant change for all businesses, but most especially small, independent ones like ours. We could have stayed open for take out but unlike businesses in larger city centres our options for purchasing much of the stock we use to operate our business and prepare our products comes from a very limited number of suppliers. Large franchises and chains have significantly larger buying power and their own distribution networks which provides them with vastly more financial and supply chain insulation than any mom and pop shop could hope to have. Much of the products we rely on to run our business could not be sourced, the very small number of local farmers in our community sold out of meat as did the grocery store. Yeast, flour, sugar and so on followed suit and lets not forget the toilet paper, bleach and hand sanitizer. Even our distributors struggled to maintain sufficient supplies to meet demands. In our case it was more cost effective to close temporarily.

Reopening at the beginning of June business is completely different;

The local farmers we normally source meat from have none, they sold out and we have had to seek sources outside of our immediate community. All of our suppliers have significantly increased their minimum purchase order amounts. Many of our suppliers are experiencing shortages, meaning we have to deal with more suppliers, each with their own purchase order minimums and delivery costs. Fresh produce supplies from our main supplier, produce that we do not grow ourselves or cannot find locally is in short supply. The list of available fresh produce that we ordered from at the same time last year was 5 pages long… this year it barely fills half a page. When our orders from suppliers arrive, they are often short numerous items, we can already anticipate food and supply shortages that are going to hit in the coming months.

We won’t be selling any produce this year, neither ours nor anyone else’s as “insurance” to make sure we have enough to continue producing food for the café and to limit the amount of waste caused by the decreased foot traffic.

Operating restrictions imposed by government to slow the spread of Covid have also had significant impact and have greatly influenced how we have decided to operate our business for the time being. Many of the temporary measures that have been put in place by government to allow businesses to operate also involve costs, sometimes significant ones, to put into place and is one of the reasons we will be sticking with the service at the door model for the time being. A patio is a great idea, when its not raining for a week straight or located right smack in the middle of mosquito and black fly paradise, not to mention the cost in the long term would be of zero benefit to us. I can count on one hand the number of times our picnic tables outside have been used since we opened, and it was always a result of standing room only left in the café or the need to accommodate a canine companion.

 Our word of mouth advertising system has also taken a significant hit. Pre-pandemic it would be normal to have a full house of customers on an almost daily basis. Friends and family getting together for lunch, Kapuskasing residents stopping in for coffee and a snack to tide them over until they get to their next stop. Travelers stopping in on long road trips, having found us on Google or Facebook, Business lunches at the half way point. So much has changed now that our customers cannot come in, sit, visit and enjoy this community space. Our usual Word of Mouth superstars, still spread the news, happily sharing daily specials and other posts on Facebook. But we’ve noticed something interesting even with this, one of the few platforms available to advertise, while the number of followers we have to our Facebook page has grown over the course of the Pandemic, any posts we make that are business related are seen by less than ¼ of the number of people they would have been Pre-Pandemic. You have probably noticed that even though you like and follow pages and people on Facebook, you only get to see the trending posts, meaning you often get to see posts days or even weeks after they were made, if you get to see them at all. Facebook is also very urban centred, with trending posts getting priority it means that any businesses you follow that are in larger urban centres will get priority over those in smaller communities. They are also milking the pandemic for all its worth financially, Pre-Pandemic Facebook encouraged us to “Boost” our posts at a cost of $15 to share it to 1500-2000 people, now its $10 to get it in front of 104.

When you see a small business that is operating on shorter hours and limited menus and stock there is a significant reason for that. Now that we are a few weeks into reopening we are bringing in only half of what we did at the same time last year. In a pandemic free world we would have likely doubled on last years income. If we remained open our regular hours and had to pay an employee to cover that time period we wouldn’t be able to keep them employed on the money coming in. Keeping to a regular full menu and to supply our usual produce with the drop in sales would result in a tremendous amount of waste in product, time, and money. Larger franchises and chains can continue with these “loss leaders” because their purchase power has bought up a lot of the available product, their prices are controlled and their losses in turn are significantly lower. Most grocery stores sell fresh produce as a “Loss leader” even when not in a pandemic situation meaning they sell it at a loss in order to get people in the store as they will spend money on other items that bring in profit.

This situation creates quite the predicament for small business owners, and for customers. We have all become accustomed to the convenience of having local businesses available to swiftly and immediately answer a desire or craving instantly.  In the current environment with small business income dropping so drastically, and costs rising significantly small businesses are having to adapt as best they can. For many small business owners’ financial losses and increased costs come directly out of their own pocket. This means limiting hours to those with the likelihood of greatest foot traffic and limiting production to pre-ordered items or those with a longer shelf life.

All of this has created a tenuous situation for small businesses. They cannot be open their normal hours, buying in and/or preparing their usual stock and products because they have no idea from one day to the next what business will be like. All they know is that the costs to provide their services have increased while sales have plummeted through no fault of their own. They have no previous experience with this to guide what to expect. As Customers, our decisions and behaviours today can have a significant impact on which businesses in our community survive this pandemic and how our communities look in the future.

Those big box stores and franchises have not had to make too many drastic changes. For the most part they will still be around when all of this is said and done, those that disappear were likely heading in that direction to begin with, Covid just pushed them there a little faster.

On the other hand, those successful small businesses that you supported before this, the ones you frequented regularly, the ones that you loved to spend time and money at, they have had to make massive changes. Most of them are making Zero profit at the moment, if not digging into their own pockets using their savings or taking out loans to try to keep their businesses ticking over the best, they can in the hopes of just making it to the other side of this. Many of them won’t because they have HAD to make changes and adapt, the problem is their customers have not, they are still in the convenience, immediate gratification mindset rather than planning ahead.   

A lament I often hear from locals is people complaining about the limited number of shops and businesses in our Northern Communities and their lack of variety, we are at serious risk of this getting worse.  This moment right here WE as local consumers can change that outcome. By actively seeking out those businesses we want to see survive this, asking them what do they have available that we want/need, asking them how we can help them stay viable through all of this. Supporting, encouraging, sharing, and providing positive comments on their social media posts. If we want what a business has to offer but can’t make it there during their Covid opening hours we can call and ask if they can accommodate us but we have to make sure we are making it worth their while to do so.

The continued existence of these small business will encourage others to open up here in the future, it will ensure stable house prices, property taxes and so much more. A vibrant, diverse local economy draws tourists, provides employment, and creates a welcoming community that people want to live in. If those small businesses close their doors for good because of all of this then that diversity perishes, boarded up businesses provide no jobs, no variety, and no incentive to visit, move or stay here, taxes will increase, our youth will leave the community and property values will tank. Our local small business economy, makes up such a significant part of the community itself, it is what draws people from afar, it is what makes people want to stay here, it is what makes a community possible.

Support Small Businesses, Support Local, Support A Vibrant Community, Support Your Communities Future.

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