The past pandemic year was brutal for many, and for many different reasons.
Business owners in particular, and the focus of this blog post, saw significant challenges to how they do business—how they do business safely and stay in business amid ongoing, teeter-tottering restrictions.
Many didn’t survive. Let’s be blunt about it. Many have shut down citing the difficulties of the pandemic. And there are many closure announcements likely to come as we enter Year 2. It sucks.
But as I was thinking about what type of “one year later” post I wanted to share, I really wanted to (surprising no one) look at the positives. I wanted to celebrate local businesses that pivoted during the pandemic. Business owners who got creative. Business owners who got innovative. Business owners who changed how they did business in order to keep doing business. Business owners who changed to survive and in some cases, thrive during the pandemic.
For many, these pivots kept their business afloat. For many, the pivots brought them great success!
I’m hoping that none of the businesses featured here announce their closure in Year 2 of the pandemic… but the reality is that sometimes you can pivot all you want and it still won’t work out, as we’ve also seen.
Everyone has a lot to unpack as we face a second year of the COVID-19 pandemic (hopefully the final year!)
And I graciously submit this piece of positivity into the “things that came out of the pandemic that weren’t all that bad” category for your consideration.
Please note as with any of the lists that I create, this obviously does not capture ALL the businesses that made positive, innovative, creative changes as a result of the pandemic.
Feel free to highlight some of your own favourite businesses and what they did in the comments!
One Year Later: Pandemic Pivots – Celebrating Edmonton Businesses That Innovated in an Impossible Year
The pandemic pulled such a punch on the escape room industry, I continue to worry about whether the amazing local escape room businesses in Edmonton—like Escape City—will make it through this. One year later, they’re still here and happy to say their latest innovation Remote Adventures has been really well received. Let’s hope it’s enough to keep them going til everyone feels safe returning to in-person adventures.
Mike Ringrose, managing partner at Escape City, tells me:
“Escape rooms by nature put people into enclosed spaces together, so over the summer as things reopened we followed public health guidance to make in-person experiences as safe as possible for customers that wanted to play within their cohorts. When cases spiked in October and November we moved to offer Remote Adventures and the response has been phenomenal. I think the quality of the experience surprises people, and the interactive inventory system makes the whole thing so much more than just an escape room over Zoom.”
From launching their own in-house delivery service to developing an online ordering website and consistently serving up unique, specialty themed menus to capture and keep customer attention throughout the pandemic, there’s not a lot Filistix hasn’t done to keep pace with the pandemic.
Ariel del Rosario, owner of Filistix, tells me:
“If there’s one thing we discovered about ourselves during the last 12 months is that resilience is truly in our DNA. From day one in our food truck, we’ve had to continuously pivot to keep our business moving in a forward trajectory to get us where we are today. This is no different. Is what we’ve done the winning formula to get us to the other side? Are there more pivots we need to make along the road? Only time will tell. We’re not out of the woods yet, although we are feeling a lot more optimistic compared to even a month ago. There’s still a long road ahead but we will continue to fight for as long as we can.”
A local bookstore that… delivers? Honestly there are some effects of the pandemic that I’m thrilled to see stick around once it’s all over, including delivery service on any number of products like books! It seems weird to think that that wasn’t a service offered but it really only came to be during the pandemic and book lovers all over the city couldn’t be more thrilled.
Jason Purcell, co-owner of Glass Bookshop, tells me:
“At Glass Bookshop, we immediately closed to in-person browsing and launched the Glass Bookshop Delivery Service, bringing books three times a week to all corners of Edmonton, St Albert, and Sherwood Park. While this decision was made initially to encourage folks to stay at home as much as possible at the advent of the pandemic, we’ve come to realize that our delivery service is another way of ensuring Glass Bookshop’s accessibility, and so we’ll continue offering the service indefinitely to serve those who may not otherwise be able to travel to our shop.”
Italian Centre Shop
Grocery stores and food markets were absolutely essential services during the pandemic and many local grocers like the Italian Centre Shop stepped up to serve customers in safe ways. The Italian Centre Shop implemented a number of COVID-19 safety protocols and started offering curbside pick-up as well as complimentary grocery deliveries.
Teresa Spinelli, owner of the Italian Centre Shop, tells me:
“With restaurant closures and the sudden hit to our wholesale business, we evolved almost overnight into a home delivery service. It was important for us to serve our loyal customers who are deemed high-risk for COVID-19 while keeping as many people on our team employed.
The community has remained so supportive of us. It’s been difficult to close our cafes which are truly a gathering place for so many but we see the gifts that have come from this too. People have honed their skills in the kitchen, learned to cook new dishes and busy families started cooking and dining together. Plans to update our website and implement a better ecommerce platform were in place but the pandemic of course, has sped things up. We hope to launch it later this year!”
We’ve been hearing throughout the past year many stories of businesses opening during the pandemic as well as businesses thriving during the pandemic—Majesty & Friends being one of those thriving businesses. The community truly came out to support this business, so much so that they’re planning on opening a second location—something they wouldn’t have dreamt possible before the pandemic! It helped that they created timely products (F*ck you Kenney) and fundraised to support their community (teaming up with Unbelts to donate $20,000 worth of masks to kids in Edmonton). Such a wonderful pandemic success story.
Julie Morrison, owner of Majesty & Friends, tells me:
“It took a deadly virus to challenge us to sell in a new way. We wouldn’t have sold online. We wouldn’t have expanded our business. We wouldn’t have been able to afford to buy new equipment and start new projects. Going online only meant that we could for the first time expand our products, and not be limited to space! And it was so honouring to have Edmonton support us in such a big way. It was overwhelming to have so much support, and we really didn’t have any idea it would be that busy. So now we know how to survive in a pandemic. It took a deadly virus to challenge us to sell in a new way. If COVID-19 hadn’t happened we would still have the same small business we had last year. We wouldn’t have sold online. We wouldn’t have expanded our business. We wouldn’t have been able to afford to buy new equipment and start new projects.”
During the pandemic, MilkCrate reimagined your typical cooking class. It wasn’t enough to just go virtual, they decided to make it an entirely custom cooking experience. What do you want to cook? We’ll get your ingredients and walk you through it from the safety of our respective homes! I loved this idea and obviously so did so many others, as it really helped keep MilkCrate busy. MilkCrate also launched a series focused on mental health for hospitality workers, such an important topic at anytime, but especially during a pandemic.
Chef Steven Brochu, of MilkCrate, tells me:
“This has been a hard year for business but an incredible year for creativity and innovation for us. We recognized that we were not like other restaurants pivoting, we could not really keep up with dinner deliveries, nor did we want to. We started thinking of our guests, bored and alone at home. So we came up with frozen take and bake ideas, then came cookie kits that people could decorate at home. We started posting more and more on social media. If our guests were going to be on the Internet then so would we. The introduction to online cooking classes was our biggest smash hit. Being able to drop off food, and cook remotely with people was not only a fun experience but a great way to brighten someones day. We finally found a way for a chef to work from home. We started gaining attention of businesses that were throwing parties and online conferences. It has kept our business going, and we are exploring other ways to use cooking online to our advantage. When things come back to ‘normal,’ the lessons we are learning now are going to be more important than ever. One of the biggest takeaways for us; innovate or die. We told our team ‘the only bad idea is closing.’ Everyone has come up with great solutions to problems and new ways of thinking differently.”
How does a bowling alley stay top of mind and survive in a pandemic? Plaza Bowling couldn’t just deliver bowling to people’s doors, so they did the next best thing: rolled out a craft beer delivery service.
Trevor Stride, owner of Plaza Bowling, tells me:
“When deciding how to cope with the shutdown(s), it was important for us to launch an offering that would allow us to continue employment for as many staff as possible. We wanted to play to our strengths as a business, and since we didn’t have the ability to send bowling out the door, we shifted our focus to one of our other passions at the alley: Alberta craft beer. Rolling out a craft beer delivery service has been a bright spot for us in that it’s allowed us to stay connected with our loyal customers and suppliers, plus it’s challenged us to learn new skill sets in building out our online platform and learning how to be a mini logistics company.”
We’ve heard stories of businesses opening during the pandemic, so many had a bit of a sense on restrictions and what to expect, but there were also businesses that opened RIGHT before the pandemic hit—who not only did not know what was coming but also didn’t have much of name recognition or customer loyalty built up yet to support them. Re:plenish is one such case, opening as a weekend-only pop-up in January 2020 and operating less than three months before the first wave of pandemic restrictions were announced in March. So what did they do to make it through?
Meghann Law, co-owner of Re:Plenish, tells me:
“In our first pivot, we created a rudimentary online ordering system and did deliveries in Edmonton and surrounding areas 7 days a week. These deliveries were a “milk man” system where we would drop off containers of personal care/cleaning products and also pick up empties to be washed and reused again. We carried on with these deliveries/pick-ups for about 3 months while we worked in the background to move out of our pop-up space and into a permanent location in Ritchie. In July we had finally finished our renovations and we opened our full-time storefront. We operated with restrictions in place from July until November when we made the decision to halt in-store shopping and offer shipping, delivery, or curbside pick up only. This time we put together a full online store and created a new system to allow people to order their refills in advance and drop off containers for contactless refills. We made the choice to shut down in-store shopping outside of government mandates and although we have been able to operate legally with in-store shopping throughout the pandemic we feel a responsibility to do our part to stop the spread. We recognize that not all businesses are able to have this flexibility, and we support our friends and neighbours who have chosen to keep their doors open as well! With case numbers dropping and the vaccine on the horizon we can’t wait to open up again and get ‘back to normal.'”
The story of deliveries is not necessarily a unique one coming out of the pandemic, but personally I was thrilled early on to see Sea Change Brewing Co. be one of the only local craft brewers offering delivery not only to Edmonton area but to the surrounding Metro Edmonton region as well (Edmonton, Beaumont, Leduc, Sherwood Park, St. Albert, Spruce Grove, and Devon). Their delivery range was not the only unique shift this brewery did as a result of the pandemic—they also focused on community giving, including collaborating with local businesses to raise money for the struggling Edmonton Food Bank, then running a second promotion for the Food Bank which raised just over $13,000, as well as creativity in their boxes (more on that below—and check out the photo!)
Pete Nguyen, co-owner of Sea Change Brewing Co., tells me:
“Like every business Sea Change had to make significance changes to how we do business when the pandemic hit. Our initial reaction to the lockdowns was not about us surviving, but how do we best serve our customers through these new rules. We closed down shop a week or so before the actual lockdown and built an online delivery site thanks to our friend James Murgatroyd. We wanted to be available right away for our customers, so we launched with free delivery for Edmonton and area right away. It was a hit, and we kept it up throughout the duration of the first lockdown. We rearranged our taprooms to accommodate pickup and launched that option shortly after our delivery launch.As a team, we felt the impact of the pandemic, it was rough in a lot of ways but we also realized that others are dealing with the same issues and some even worse than we are. With community partnerships and an abundance of creative thinking and execution, we were able to lift some spirits and spread the burden of the pandemic. On a more fun creative level, we designed our beer flat boxes with dartboard games underneath it since everyone was missing going to their local bar to play darts during covid. It was so well received that we’ll be printing them like this from now on.”
Another case of more-success during the pandemic than before it, comes in the form of Shop Chop, who I had noticed very early on in the pandemic switching to Instagram DM sales in lieu of an online store. The pandemic also pushed this little shop to go online in the form of an online store (much like Majesty & Friends). Their Instagram and website selling were key to not only surviving but thriving in the pandemic.
Robert Eccles, co-owner of Shop Chop, tells me:
“We’ve made a couple of shifts over the last year in both how and where we provide services to our customers. During the first lockdown we had to adapt by selling items over Instagram DM because we didn’t have a website at the time. It was very well received by the community as it was providing a more interactive platform for people to do their shopping when compared to an online store. It was a very personalized transaction at a time when people were craving outside communication. During that time we were building our website behind the scenes and launched it in unison with our store reopening in June, and it has also had a great reception from our customers.”
What do you do to a private dining room / meeting room space in a time when no one is gathering indoors? Tiramisu Bistro decided to convert the private space in their restaurant into your neighbourhood, corner market (literally on the corner of the street!) They also, like a few Edmonton restaurants, invested in winter patio infrastructure that would allow for more customers to safely dine and support them during this time.
Seble Isaac, owner of Tiramisu Bistro, tells me:
“The pandemic pushed us to think outside the box like most business owners. Here at Tiramisu Bistro we not only created another stream of income but created a “Lift Me Up” experience by opening the market with artisan bread, local produce and more! But we also recently introduced outdoor street side winter patio igloos inspired by those seen in New York!”
The pandemic saw a great demand for the supply of face masks. In some cases that meant hobby sewer (sewist? seamstress? tailors lol) creating masks in their homes. In other cases, like with Unbelts, you had a local belt maker assessing the needs of their supply chain. Do people need belts if they’re working and primarily staying at home? What do people need instead? Masks!
Claire Theaker-Brown, owner of Unbelts, tells me:
“We knew most of our retailers weren’t going to be needing their spring wholesale orders, so we were bracing ourselves for a major revenue void. We had to do what we could to keep our suppliers alive. It took almost a decade to find the little factories we work with, and we didn’t want to come out of the pandemic having lost our network of equitable employers. We had to keep placing orders of *something*, whether or not that something was belts. And when we saw how uncomfortable most masks on the market were, and realized we had access to truly excellent materials through our supply network… we decided to act and add masks to our product line. In the end, it wasn’t as much of a departure from our core offering – belts – as you might think. We’ve always been really based in utility and comfort; making masks that were centred on wearability and quality materials was just an extension of that. We were able to expand our giving program, and used masks to experiment with a Buy One, Give One model which we’ll be carrying forward in some capacity with belts. We were able to expand our team, and it’s felt great to create new jobs—we’ve taken particular care to keep hours flexible because everyone’s caregiving and self-care needs have never been more urgent. We were able to reach new customers who’d never heard of our belts but read about masks.
We’ve also seen first-hand the upsetting gender differences in COVID’s effect on working parents, and how much pressure there’s been on moms to create the flexibility the world’s needed over the past year. I really hope that we can come out of this pandemic seeing *all* workplaces continue the innovation work that will be necessary for parents to participate equally in family life and management. We are so, so grateful for the community support this year, and for the chance to be really forthright with what we need – and what we can give.”
Only operating take-out is not sustainable for most restaurants, but something that nearly all had to do as per pandemic restrictions. I truly feel for so many restaurants that have been so hard hit by this. I think many restaurants that won’t get to realize their full potential, many shuttered too soon, many that may not even begin—because of the pandemic. But it is encouraging to see restaurants taking the cards they’re being dealt and making it work, like Workshop Eatery (and sister restaurant Woodshed Burgers).
Chef Paul Shufelt, of Workshop Eatery, tells me:
“Right away we knew that operating Workshop Eatery as it was for takeout would not be sustainable. At the time, Woodshed Burgers was doing well with takeout on 124th Street, so we thought it would be a manageable transition to the south side. Turns out it was so successful that we managed to open up a permanent brick and mortar location on the southside. That was an amazing blessing that came out of this… (then with the second wave), it posed a whole new problem for us. We couldn’t simply turn Workshop into Woodshed again, because we now had one down the street. So, we came up with a new concept, and rolled it out, in about a week. Crazy.
I’m incredibly thankful to the people of Edmonton, who have continued to support all of our crazy initiatives over the past year, including a drive-in movie theatre, fire pits and greenhouses at Victoria, countless take home meal kits for every holiday, and our Christmas gift card campaign that raised over 750 meals for the Ronald McDonald House.
This Filipino and Asian-inspired ice cream shop has faced challenges from the very beginning. They of course sell ice cream in a Winter City. Their unique ingredients are hard to come by. And shipping from Asia is understandably pricy right now. They, as was the case for so many businesses unfortunately, also didn’t qualify for economic supports related to the pandemic. But they innovated. And they’re still here. They know their changes kept them afloat and they also hope it keeps them going.
Ailynn Wong, co-owner of Yelo’d Ice Cream and Bake Shoppe, tells me:
“It’s been a tough year no doubt. The biggest change was of course our window that Jason designed last April. We were the first to move to curb side and the first to not allow customers in to keep them and our staff safe. Being able to think on our feet has helped us tremendously.
The window has allowed us to stay open. Very quickly we decided on the truck and took everything we had to bring our ice cream to people. We built that truck with our last pennies haha and crossed our fingers people would come for ice cream if we brought it closer to them.
Our first priority is our family, their safety and this included our staff. We went to a skeleton crew and pinky promised for 10 weeks to work together and go home and no where else so that we could stay afloat and stay open.”
and the list goes on and on…
- Bamboo Ballroom: helped create demand for their products through Instagram Story and other social media posts, as well as offering curbside pick-up, like many local fashion retailers.
- Biera: created rotating, themed Biera Boxes. Each Biera Box has a beer from Blind Enthusiasm, a cheese paired to that beer, sourdough focaccia and accompaniments made in-house, a sweet treat and an optional charcuterie add-on. The boxes, available during the weekends (including delivery), were a tasty and safe way to have a nice date night at home during the pandemic.
- Blue Gemini Hair Studio: my sister-in-law’s hair salon started an online shop for hair products they carry, and did local deliveries, like many other hair salons.
- Chef Table Living: went from offering food bike tours to creating and selling take-home Chef Kits and Cocktail Kits featuring all the ingredients you need along with video instruction to create your meal or drink!
- Dil-e-Punjab Sweets & Restaurant: began offering free food for those struggling in the pandemic. “We all have to hang in there together and make sure we stick together and help each other,” said Varinder Bhullar.
- Eddie’s Men’s Wear: introduced a few different ways to accommodate customer needs—call or video call shopping experiences, texting, curbside options plus easing into an online store.
- Farrow Sandwich: put together a chute to drop sandwiches down as a clever way for customers to pick up food without crowding into their tiny space. They were also able to open a third location in downtown Edmonton during the pandemic!
- Fleisch: put together Fleisch food boxes, a beer advent calendar, implemented online ordering and you know what tried really hard to advocate for food and hospitality workers during the pandemic.
- Hanjan: early on teamed up with Izakaya Tomo, its south side next door neighbour, to offer combined delivery or pick-up services.
- Kim Fat Market: created take-home meal kits to attract new customers in a less intimidating way.
- Local Mask Makers: there were countless tailors and clothing designers who started making and selling masks amid the pandemic as well (along with individuals who started mask businesses as well).
- Metro Cinema: rented out their marquee (remember the wedding proposal?) and offered popcorn and beer to-go pop-ups.
- Oodle Noodle: also donated free food during the pandemic making extra noodles and sauces and donating more than 16,400 meals to shelters supporting Edmontonians in need. “It’s not about making money right now, it’s about making sure we have a company coming out of this,” said Jay Downton.”
- Prana Yoga Studio: switched to virtual classes, like many fitness-focused businesses.
- Tzin Wine and Tapas: started offering curbside pick-ups of their famous Bacon + a bottle of wine, a surprise multi-course dinner for two (including a bottle of wine and a custom Tzin music playlist to listen while you eat), plus a Curbside Pick Five option (also including playlist!)
Every week it felt like there was a new restaurant opening announcement!
(I get those updates on Sharon’s weekly Food Notes blog).
And honestly, many businesses simply creating websites or starting social media accounts for the very first time as a result of the pandemic, was a huge change and certainly innovative for them.
My parents at King Noodle House Pho Hoang started allowing online orders and e-transfer payments for #PhoToGo as a result of the pandemic—certainly not the easiest system we could have implemented or the most obviously groundbreaking, but it was a giant shift for them, and one they wouldn’t even have entertained had a pandemic not been happening.
The pandemic saw such a gap in this—businesses who launch without an online presence, businesses lacking online order, business owners who aren’t sure how to get started online, or what they should be doing online, something you I guess could have gotten away with pre-pandemic, but just simply isn’t the case anymore. So much so that the University of Alberta School of Retailing and the City of Edmonton have teamed up to launch Making Edmonton Digital, a free digital marketing consulting service for businesses wanting to go online—created as a direct result of the pandemic.
I’m truly inspired by the actions of so many this past year, business owner and otherwise. And I’m so sorry thinking of those who weren’t able to beat the pandemic, who tried all that they could. I don’t want this to look like a list of people who did it right and that’s why they’re still around, no I truly believe even businesses who were unable to survive this pandemic deserve to be celebrated for sticking around as long as they could, and doing what they could to make it work. Everyone’s situation is so different and of course everyone comes at the challenges of the pandemic from a different place and a different set of privileges.
I truly hope 2021 is the last year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that 2022 involves a lot less pivoting-to-survive. It’s been such a long, exhausting year. Innovation is cool, forced innovation is okay I guess, but you know what? Just sort of existing as best you can is sort of great too? lol.
As mentioned, as with any of the lists that I create, this obviously does not capture ALL the businesses that made positive, innovative, creative changes as a result of the pandemic.
I encourage you to highlight some of your own favourite businesses and what they did during the pandemic that caught your attention or deserves a shout out, in the comments below!
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