Small Winnipeg businesses fight to stay afloat, face backlash amid public pressure to close

By | March 19, 2020

Manitoba businesses are being forced to choose between closing their doors, or staying open and facing growing public backlash. 

“No one, no one has said you don’t worry about these bills,” says Miles Gould, owner of three Winnipeg restaurants and two coffee shops.

Between the five businesses, Gould employs about 150 people, and says the decisions he makes impact the livelihoods of many more. He says for now, his restaurants The Grove, The Cornerstone and Blackbird Brasserie will stay open but The Canteen coffee shops will close.

If we don’t open tomorrow our cleaner won’t come in and he won’t be able to pay his staff, and he won’t be able to pay his bills, maybe his mortgage, put food on the tables for his kids,” says Gould.  

“From the cleaners, from our food suppliers, from our drinks suppliers, absolutely everyone is relying on us to keep going.

Miles Gould, who owns several Winnipeg restaurants, says his businesses are turning to delivery as an option to survive what’s to come with the COVID-19 crisis. 0:37

On Tuesday, Gould removed tables in some of his restaurants to reduce the capacity to 50, in order to keep in line with the province’s direction on social distancing. Still, he fears there will be public backlash for not closing the doors entirely.

“What my biggest fear is, people judging us on this,” says Gould. That we will maybe be taking the wrong choice here and we might end up having to close if we can’t pay our bills.”

He’s now partnering with Skip the Dishes and hopes that adding a delivery option for customers will help sustain his business while the province tries to figure out life after COVID-19.

‘If you close your business, it hurts your employees’

Samantha Lacoste understands Gould’s anxiety. She and her business partner had kept their hair salon open for several days during the outbreak, before finally making the decision to close their doors Wednesday night.

If you close your business, it hurts your employees. It hurts your business. If you do stay open, then you’re getting the community backlashing you as well. So there’s really no right or wrong answer at this point,” says Lacoste, co-owner of Samantha James Hair Salon.

Samantha Lacoste’s hair salon stopped taking walk-ins because of the COVID-19 crisis before eventually making the decision to shut its doors. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The province is asking the public to limit close contact to 10 minutes, but has not directed hair salons, massage therapists or physiotherapists to stop seeing clients.

“It’s a choice they’re going to need to to make right now on how they can adequately ensure sick individuals aren’t walking into their places. Frequent hand-washing, limiting waiting in areas,” says chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin. 

“This is evolving all the time, and if we see more and more community transmission then our messaging can be more clear, and more firm on those on those things,” says Roussin.

Matthew Sabourin’s restaurant and microbrewery Nonsuch Brewing Co. was doing better than ever before the COVID-19 crisis. On Tuesday, the Winnipeg business shut its doors and is now in the process of creating a delivery option for customers in order to try and stay afloat. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

‘Will this be months? Will this be weeks?’

On Tuesday, Nonsuch Brewing Co. closed its doors temporarily, and laid off 16 of its 24 employees. The microbrewery opened in November 2018, and expanded to a restaurant and bar the following October. Six months ago the owners signed a lease for an additional 5000 square feet of space.

“We were doing better than ever. We were absolutely on a big growth curve with lots, lots of momentum.”

“So we were really, really excited about what the summer was going to mean for us … and now we’re trying to understand what this will all mean,” says Matthew Sabourin, Nonsuch president and co-owner.

Matthew Sabourin, president and co-owner of Nonsuch Brewing Co., says a lot of small businesses like his will be hurting as a result of the COVID-19 closures. 0:26

Sabourin says unlike other restaurants, Nonsuch is also a microbrewery and it supplies beer to Manitoba Liquor Marts. The company is now in the process of creating a delivery service to try and sustain its business for as long as possible.

When you’re building a business plan, you don’t say, what if there’s a pandemic?, says Sabourin. “Will this be months? Will this be weeks … quarters? We don’t know and that’s why we’re trying to put our focus on all of the options that don’t require people to come here.”

Social distancing has also drastically reduced business for Botanical Paper Works. The eco-friendly company manufactures wedding invitations, bookmarks and postcards from biodegradable seed-infused paper that can be planted. 

“People are on hold. Their events have been postponed, cancelled. They’re waiting to plan an event so people aren’t buying, so the inquiries that are coming in are dramatically reduced,” says Botanical Paper Works CEO and co-founder Heidi Reimer-Epp.

Heidi Reimer-Epp, co-founder of Botanical Paperworks, says she expanded her business at the end of 2019 and was already seeing a 40 per cent jump in growth at the start of this year. (John Einarson/CBC)

She’s been in business for 22 years and thought she’d seen its lowest point after 9/11 when business suddenly stopped overnight.

“I think it’s gonna be a really tough time for businesses that were already on the edge … What we had learned when we came through 9/11 was that we need to have a buffer and we need to be prepared for the unknown and the unpreparable,” says Reimer-Epp.

Reimer-Epp has already had to lay off a handful of people but is hopeful things will bounce back in time.

That’s the mental approach that I’m trying to take in, that I’m trying to share with all the staff too, is that this is temporary. So it’s a temporary layoff and life will continue. I’m confident that we’ll come back. [Business] will be stronger than ever. We just don’t know when.”

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