If you open, will they come? Winnipeg business owners anxiously prepare for return of customers

By | May 4, 2020

Max Vo is anxious to pull out his clippers when he sees all the men around town looking shaggy and scruffy after weeks without a haircut.

But as Manitoba gambles on an economic restart faster than most expected, Vo has more to worry about than unkempt manes.

He’s trying to open a new location for his Bespoke Barbershop as well, while the economy stumbles around him.

“It’s very scary, because you don’t really know what future this industry might get into, with different rules and if they change regulations,” Vo said one recent afternoon, from a well-worn seat at his Elmwood barbershop.

Whether Manitoba is ready or not, Premier Brian Pallister’s government has given hair salons, outdoor patios, dental clinics and most retail outlets — forced to close last month under a public health order — the green light to reopen as of Monday, so long as they follow strict rules around sanitation and physical distancing. 

The move, announced just last Wednesday, surprised many, considering how often health officials insisted any economic restart would be cautious, in order to prevent a surge in COVID-19 cases. 

Rush to reopen

Business owners have scrambled to find staff, supplies and bottles of sanitizer — in only five days.

Many said they cannot reopen that quickly, or feel it isn’t safe when people are still urged to stay home.

Vo, set to launch his second shop, says he’s too invested to stop now. 

“I don’t give up easily,” he said, his floppy hair tucked under his ball cap. “I’m pretty stubborn.” 

But he must feel buoyed when he glances at his phone, as contractors slap brick panelling onto his new brightly lit shop with scattered Michael Jordan memorabilia. He sees three text messages and several Instagram notifications.

“Whenever I look at my phone, it’s crazy,” Vo said, referring to the future appointments he’s scheduling.

In part, Vo is rushing to open of his second barbershop at Regent and Lagimoderie, originally planned for April, to handle demand he figures has built up.

‘I was here for probably three hours and that phone just did not stop’ ringing with customers eager to book appointments, says Vo. (Ian Froese/CBC)

In his existing shop — about the size of an average living room — he only wants two of a possible four barbers working at a time to ensure physical distancing.

Vo will stagger shifts, but hopes by next week he can relocate some barbers to the new location. At 1,000 square feet, it’s triple the size of his first shop.

Additional hiring is on hold.

“Right now we can’t book everybody in because we don’t know all of the restrictions,” Vo said.

As soon as the province revealed last Wednesday that hair stylists would be included in the first phase of its reopening plan, Vo spent hours just booking appointments. His 14-year-old son, Bailey, helped too.

“I was here for probably three hours and that phone just did not stop,” Vo says.

Opening in a pandemic

Since then, he has been running off his feet, visiting both shops, while buying the furniture and fixtures so Bespoke can operate in two places.

He even planned to spend his 40th birthday, on Saturday, finishing his work. It’s not like he has any other social plans.

“There’s really nowhere to go.”

On Pembina Highway, Peter Ginakes is thinking of how busy his patio at Pony Corral — among the city’s largest — could be, if not for a global pandemic.

It’s sunny and 20 degrees — the envy of any Winnipegger with a patio at springtime.

Restaurant patios can open up in Manitoba beginning on Monday, so long as the outdoor dining area is at half the normal capacity and tables and chairs are cleaned between customers. (Ian Froese/CBC)

But Ginakes has been in the restaurant business long enough to know days like this are rare in May. He’s now allowed to open his patio, but the indoor dining room must remain closed to customers for now.

What happens, he asks, when the weather turns?

“If I bring all these extra employees in and we can’t serve [customers] if it’s raining or if it’s cold out, what do I do?” Ginakes said.

As of Monday, customers can sit down at a restaurant — provided they’re outside — for the first time in more than a month. The patios must operate at half capacity, however, and patrons must be seated at least two metres apart. Only “brief exchanges” with staff who are any closer than that are allowed.

Drink refills aren’t allowed, and anything on tables — such as napkin dispensers or condiment containers — must be sanitized between customers.

Ginakes wants the government to extend those rules indoors. He’d be happy with even 10 per cent of usual capacity — “at least a couple of seats open inside, and if it [starts raining], we can bring a few people back into the restaurant to serve them.”

With restaurants restricted for the past several weeks to only takout or delivery, revenue is a fraction of what it was.

It doesn’t mean they aren’t still busy — but for Ginakes, it’s meant just four staffers at once to handle the rush.

“It doesn’t stop,” one worker says aloud, as he slips into the kitchen.

Hadi Haftani takes a call during the busy dinner rush at Pony Corral’s Pembina Highway location. The eatery, which has been able to offer only takeout and delivery options for the past several weeks, will open its patio on Monday, weather permitting. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Ginakes drops by his Nairn Avenue location for the lunchtime delivery crunch and slips on his apron to help with cooking.

He cannot stop those revenue streams, considering how unreliable patio business is in May. He doesn’t know how many employees he can bring back, when the patio crowd can disappear in a matter of minutes.

“Some of my colleagues say they’re not even opening the patio because they can’t chance it.”

Sherry Sobey is treading carefully with her Exchange District retailer specializing in eco-friendly products.

Generation Green will only open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, at reduced hours, and her café will only sell drinks.

Sherry Sobey with Generation Green is ready for reopening, but she will initially welcome customers to her Exchange District shop without any employees on her payroll. (Ian Froese/CBC)

She’s scaling back since she’s the only one working. Sobey cannot afford to bring back any staff members. The only help she’s got are her sons, who run the odd errand, and a friend who’s offered to volunteer.

“I have to build up my revenue again to be able to employ people,” she says.

Any income will be funnelled into her rent, roughly $5,000 a month. The $40,000 loan from the federal government’s aid program helps, but it won’t last. Otherwise, the bills keep coming, even if customers return slowly.

“I don’t expect a huge rush in — people are going to be tip-toeing in,” Sobey said, wiping a counter with sanitizer.

The business crowd vital to so many Exchange District businesses will likely be diminished at first. Once they return, she wonders if they will visit as often as before.

“Have their habits been broken? We’ll see.”

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