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Canmore businesses adapt to new reality with COVID-19

"The big thing is that we all have to stick together. We will all struggle and suffer differently and we all have different abilities to adapt and overcome. It is a case of staying positive, looking forward to the future and getting through this together." 

CANMORE – As the business community in Canmore continues to cope with the shutdown of non-essential services as part of the response to a new coronavirus, those that remain open have found new and innovative ways to adapt during this crisis. 

In March, many businesses found themselves in a situation where they had to shut down completely, laying off staff and facing an uncertain future as a non-essential service. Those considered essential had to decide if they would remain open given the circumstances and how they could modify operations to ensure public health restrictions are respected.

Business owners that remained open in this new reality also had to adjust how they operate to remain financially viable with an uncertain economic future. Many local small businesses have embraced innovation to adapt and hopefully survive. 

Sage Bistro and Wine Lounge owner Todd Kunst's last day of normal business was on March 15.

A few days later, he woke up and decided there had to be something he could do to meet the needs of the community.

Early in the crisis, empty shelves at local grocery stores led Kunst to offer to use his suppliers to bring in fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, toilet paper and hand sanitizer. 

"We first started offering some produce and meat – selling it on distancing tables in the parking lot at a pretty good discount," he said. 

"We were making a few dollars to basically pay the electricity bills more or less.

"I started with that and the next week we started doing some bulk meal preparations and selling those."

He was able to bring back his chef and a foreign worker to help out, and soon expanded the menu after some trial and error to see what sold and what didn't.

He offers prepared meals on Wednesdays and Saturdays, including a three-course menu and wine for those looking for the full restaurant experience. He will also deliver to those who are isolating as a result of public health regulations. 

While Kunst isn't the only restaurant that has adapted by offering groceries or prepared meals for takeout, it has been challenging.

It is hard to know what sells with respect to takeout meals and people often order at the last minute, making it difficult to know how much food to order in advance and reduce waste. 

"It is a work in progress," Kunst said, adding he has been able to improve the new service by building better systems and becoming more efficient. 

"We added wine to the sales as well ... we were looking for ways to make a few dollars and offer the community something that is not in the grocery store. 

"We are doing anything we can to keep somewhat of a business going." 

The reheatable prepared takeout meals is something Kunst said he thinks the restaurant industry overall may have to adopt into the future – returning to business as usual doesn't seem possible yet. 

"In six months, people may still be apprehensive to go out for a meal," he said.

"It will look different for sure and who knows what that will look like." 

Kunst's family bought the property in 1988 and he has been running the business since 2001. He said that has been the greatest godsend in this crisis.

"We are in an advantageous position that way, but I feel horrible for [restaurants] that rent," he said.

"It is not going to bounce back to levels where we were before – paying rent will be an issue for a lot of people."

Cheryl Cooper and her husband Serge Ouimette became new business owners at the end of 2019 after they purchased O'Canada Soap Works – which included a Main Street retail location and its production facility.

Cooper said plans were moving forward for a major renovation to the retail store, relocation of the production facility, redesign the website and a new e-commerce platform prior to the COVID-19 crisis taking hold in March. 

"In terms of timing, it could not have worked out better," she said.

"We are taking advantage of the opportunity to do all this stuff we were planning to do anyway.

"I am hoping when we reopen we will have everything set and ready to go." 

Cooper said she was paying attention to news about the virus and that led her to push forward with developing a hand sanitizer formula. The new product has proven successful in keeping things going for the small business.

"That really has been the thing that has helped us a lot to get through this," she said.

"Our day-to-day income was impacted by the fact we had to close the store, but this new product has really helped us get through."

Available for sale online, at Rusticana and Home Hardware in Canmore, Cooper has also donated the lotion-based sanitizer to local frontline workers and the Red Cross. 

"Because we are using a lotion instead of aloe as the base for our hand sanitizer ... it is more soothing and takes the sting out of it, especially when using it repeatedly during the day," she said.

Rocky Mountain Soap Company owner Karina Birch was in a similar situation after closing that company's 13 retail stores across Canada – including in Canmore and Banff – and laying off 120 staff.

With 80 per cent of the business's sales happening at those retail locations – there was a new focus on the website and e-commerce platform. Birch said they had to consider if an online only business model would sustain the company. 

There was also a formula for hand sanitizer that had been previously developed, but shelved as the company pursued other projects. Birch said they realized right away hand sanitizer was going to be a priority.

"We were lucky enough that we developed the formula last year and it was ready to go. It just needed Health Canada approval and the regular scale up process in our workshop," Birch said.

"What would normally take us six months, we did in two weeks."

Health Canada fast tracked the application for the natural health product status of the sanitizer and the company was able to use existing suppliers to bring in the ingredients and start manufacturing. 

The first batch was sent to women's shelters around Alberta and essential businesses that could not find hand sanitizer, but needed it to stay open. Giving back to the community was an important consideration early in the process.

"We are working on other projects in terms of how the company can continue to give back to the community," Birch said. 

When the company launched the new product online for sale, she said there was no idea as to what the demand would be. The first 1,500 bottles sold out within a few minutes and another batch of 3,500 bottles sold out in 22 minutes – all of which then had to be shipped in a timely way.

There are still challenges to overcome, like a global shortage on packaging materials, and re-organizing the shipping department to handle more online orders, instead of being focused on supplying retail locations. 

Staff have also been hand delivering local orders in the Bow Valley on weekdays in order to segment them out of the larger distribution process. 

"There are all these competing priorities and there are no easy answers," Birch said.

"We have to be able to allow ourselves the time to think through these creative solutions." 

CanSign owner Mike Halprin said his sign shop is still open for business and has been making COVID-19 related signage for local businesses, the Town of Canmore and MD of Bighorn.

"We have been working closely with municipalities in relation to this," he said.

"But our business is definitely down based on normal levels ... we are struggling like everyone else." 

One of the challenges has been the timeframes that COVID-19 signs have been needed by local governments. Halprin said a job that would normally take a week is being done in 24 hours instead.

"Adapt and overcome is where we are right now," he said.

"We are doing our best to keep people employed safely."

Canmore residents may have seen CanSign's physical distancing floor decals throughout the community. Halprin said those decals are being provided free to any business that needs them.

"As you know, every small business in Canmore could use a little help," he said.

The initiative was spearheaded by Banff's Defending Awesome, which has been supplying them to businesses in that community to help out. That company challenged the valley's sign shops like CanSign to do the same and Halprin was happy to get involved. 

"After 41 years as a family-run business, we owe the community a lot and we want to do anything we can to give back," he said, adding as a result, CanSign received a large contract to supply the floor decals to a financial institution with branches across Alberta. 

"The big thing is that we all have to stick together. We will all struggle and suffer differently and we all have different abilities to adapt and overcome. 

"It is a case of staying positive, looking forward to the future and getting through this together." 

For Yoga Lounge owner Jeff Mah, he knew his business model was going to have to drastically change on March 15 when the provincial government announced it would be cancelling classes for kindergarten to Grade 12 students across Alberta.

Leading up to the announcement, there were measures being put in place at the studio every day to prevent the spread of the virus. Signage to ask people to not attend class if they were unwell, and to wash their hands, were put up. Props used during yoga class were no longer being offered. 

"Once school was cancelled, all bets were off," Mah said. "The very next day we pivoted to online classes."

While provincial restrictions on gyms and studios came later, Mah said with school-aged children at home, he knew class attendance would be affected. Completely transitioning the entire schedule of classes to the online Zoom platform was a challenge, but one he was somewhat prepared for.

His management team had experience with the online live streaming technology and the Yoga Lounge had done some work on making videos, so had the hardware needed to transition online quickly.

"If we did not have the gear and knowledge ... it would be pretty daunting," Mah said, adding there has been good uptake with the online classes. 

That being said, he noted revenues are down as a result of the studio closing. The Yoga Lounge has offered some alternate pricing options for those who may be financially struggling and many students see the value of what they are offering during the crisis and have maintained their memberships. The studio has even offerred to lend out props to those who need them to practice yoga at home.

One big help, added Mah, has been the fact his landlord has worked with tenants in their building to help them survive through the closure.

"We have a compassionate landlord that was able to give us a bit of a break on rent and that was greatly appreciated," he said. 

Two of the three Beamer's Coffee locations have remained open during the COVID-19 crisis – offering serve at the door of each shop.

Keeping the coffee brewed and for sale was a given for the popular local business, but sourcing and supplying large amounts of flour and yeast was unexpected.

Manager Alex Thomas said as an avid baker of sourdough bread, she was having a hard time finding flour and she wasn't alone.

She ordered a 20-kilogram bag through the store's supplier and soon discovered others were in a similar situation. 

"Everybody has a lot of time on their hands [for baking]," Thomas said.

"I was asking around to see if anyone else was interested in flour. I had a few requests for flour and an obscene amount for yeast – it rolled out from there." 

Baking supplies like parchment paper, butter and brown sugar were also sourced for local bakers. Thomas said baking can be a comfort during these uncertain times and as long as there is a demand for flour and yeast in the community, they will continue to bring in a weekly order.

"It has not been hugely profitable, but most people grab a coffee or a latte [when they are here]," she said, adding many have learned where the newest Beamer's location is in the Shops of Canmore.  

"But mostly everyone wants to do what they can and this is a little thing we can do." 


Follow's COVID-19 special section for the latest local and national news on the coronavirus pandemic, as well as resources, FAQs and more.

Tanya Foubert

About the Author: Tanya Foubert

Tanya Foubert started as a news reporter at the Rocky Mountain Outlook in 2006. She won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best news story for her coverage of the 2013 flood. In December 2018, she became editor of the Outlook.
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