‘I like challenges’: Winnipeg businesses give back while fighting off financial disaster

By | April 24, 2020

They are businesses in different markets with different challenges during the current health crisis, but Winnipeg companies GoOil.ca and Salisbury House Restaurants are trying to fight through and give back at the same time.

Serial entrepreneur (he’s started several companies) John Sparrow is only 26 years old and doesn’t have a business degree — but he’s taken his company GoOil.ca from nothing to franchises in 12 Canadian cities in two years. 

The economy has taken a wallop from the COVID-19 pandemic with physical distancing rules changing so many normal routines, but Sparrow’s mobile oil change business has a physical distance element built into it.

Book an appointment online, leave your keys at the appointed time, and the oil change can happen without any contact. Go Oil’s staff have to wear protective gear, but other than that, it’s a routine that’s relatively simple.

Go Oil’s John Sparrow calls the pandemic ‘a curveball,’ and found a way to spread some positivity while everything is ‘super negative.’ (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Sparrow admits managing a start-up with locations across Canada during a pandemic is uncharted territory.

“Nobody’s ever gone through this challenge before, so any business book or podcast isn’t really going to help you during this. So it’s a challenge and I like challenges,” hesaid.

The pandemic inspired a simple gesture for the company.

It started with GoOil’s Winnipeg franchisee Bele Reide, who offered a free oil change and tire swap to a health-care worker.

Sparrow saw it as chance to spread the gesture even further and began offering a $100 in free services to all health-care workers.

After giving $24,000 in oil changes and tire swaps, Sparrow expanded the offer. A $60 credit to any frontline worker — from grocery store workers to delivery staff.

“Those are the people who risk and are putting their own health at risk by going out there and working every single day. So we want to get back to them,” Sparrow told CBC News.

It’s pretty simple to get the discount. Go to the company’s website, follow the link, enter promo code “hero” and front-line workers qualify for the $60 discount.

Sparrow says the feedback the company gets is inspiring.

“‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’ is what we are hearing,” Sparrow said.

“Everything happening right now is super negative. And as a company you know this is what we can do and this is what we know how to do, and we need to stay busy.” 

Sals finds new way to feed customers, show appreciation

Restaurants have taken colossal blows to their bottom lines and iconic Manitoba chain Salisbury House is no exception.

“It’s not just us. Everybody’s felt that pain the same way,” Sals president and ceo Brad Kramble told CBC News in the empty parking lot at the company’s Pembina Highway location.

It’s a lot that normally would be jammed.

Kramble has had to figure out ways to shrug off an 80 per cent decline in sales volume since physical distance health rules shuttered eat-in dining. And start hiring back some of the nearly 400 staff laid off since the shutdown.

Salisbury House president Brad Kramble says helping out is ‘just the right thing to do,’ even as the company struggles back from a massive drop in sales. (Jaison Empson/CBC )

Part of the solution — a new heat-and-eat home meal program the company operates from its commissary facility on Bannister Road, where it offers meals at wholesale prices. 

“We hired four full-time individuals back last week. We’ve already hired one more back this week. We’re looking to hire more and that’s full-time jobs,” Kramble said. “We’re creeping back.” 

The company’s concern for its employees goes up the management chain to its owners, Earl and Cheryl Barish. The couple personally gave laid off staff $50,000 in gift cards to purchase food, at cost, at the company’s commissary.

Salisbury House has taken that spirit to another level by every week giving different groups of front-line workers a free meal. Last week 911 operators got lunch, complete with the restaurant’s signature red velvet cake. 

It’s philanthropy Kramble is reluctant to speak about.

“It’s one of those things that we’re not doing it because we want publicity. We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Salisbury House Restaurants lost 80 per cent of its sales as the pandemic closed its 13 locations to eat-in service, but the company is figuring new ways of feeding people. (Jaison Empson/CBC )

Kramble admits there will be a whole new set of challenges as the economy slowly reopens, including new standards of cleanliness and training for staff and financial issues to manage.

But the Sals president is confident the 89-year-old chain will be in the burger business for years to come.

“We’re not going anywhere — we are going to make sure that we’re here. And the things we do now sets the base up for future,” Kramble said.

Can the government help?

Both businessmen — relative rookie Sparrow and seasoned veteran Kramble — have similar responses to what governments should be thinking about as the health crisis eases and the financial one grips tighter.

Sparrow says government should be looking closely at how to help companies make rent and keep staff working.

“Is your company going to be around in six months?” Sparrow says. 

Kramble says much the same thing — expenses, especially for items such as rent, are piling up for many businesses.

“That keeps adding up and adding up. And that amount of debt that everybody’s going to be carrying is massive and it’s staggering and the government is really going to have to do something,” Kramble said.

Both believe their companies are up for the fight.

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