COVID-19 year in review: A challenging year for Ottawa’s small businesses

OTTAWA — One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, there is optimism in one Ottawa community as shops slowly and carefully reopen their doors to shoppers that were there for them when they needed it most.

The COVID-19 pandemic has included lockdowns and the closure of non-essential businesses, while also imposing new rules on how businesses operate in a bid to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Nestled along the historic Rideau Canal is the village of Manotick. Boutiques and eateries line the main street; each shop, only steps from the other.

At the centre, 692 Coffee and Bar, where people go to meet and hear the talk of the town.

“Today’s topic is about everyone looking forward to opening back up and getting back to normal,” says co-owner Charles Cullen. “We’re starting to have busy weekends again and it’s feeling really good.”

The java joint, which brews locally roasted coffee and offers homemade snacks, was only six months into their business when the pandemic forced them to close their doors last March.

Simply put, Cullen says it was hell. 692 Coffee and Bar invested thousands of dollars towards an outdoor patio with heaters, only for winter to strike.  The business quickly shifting to online sales, while providing curb-side pickup.

Those same challenges, rippled down the main street to every shop.

At Lasting Impressions, owner Gina Petrocco almost called it quits. After more than 15 years of selling gifts and greeting cards, pivoting her business built on walk-in customers who enjoy browsing seemed insurmountable. 

“We waited and we were planning what do we do next as we wait for customers to come back,” says Petrocco. “But over time people stared getting in touch, realizing you’re not going to be around if we don’t support you. So we’re going to buy this from you whether it was by phone or email.”

Petrocco invested in new technology to create an online sales platform. Now, every item in her store can be purchased through the store’s website. Her shop has started to rebound.

“People were choosing to shop with us over a big-box store,” says Petrocco. “And that means so much, I couldn’t even tell you.”

Just down the way at Rebel Pedal, owner Michelle Van Den Bosch’s flower shop nearly withered away. 

“Things changed very quickly last year on March 13,” says Van Den Bosch. “We began taking phone call after phone call for cancellations for big events we were doing.” 

There would be no weddings or galas and Van Den Bosch had recently set-up shop. To make matters worse, the supply chain was interrupted. Holland wasn’t shipping and neither was South America, where many of the colourful flowers come from.

While the shop’s doors never opened to customers, Van Den Bosch did not close. She continued her sales over the phone and online.

“Hope is definitely blossoming,” she says. “People are sending each other flowers for mental wellness and we know that flowers have powers.”

And so can breaking bread. The Mill Tavern restaurant had to switch to take out only at the start of the pandemic. Head chef David Thok says it was the simple sales that helped the pub digest the reality of having to close its dining room.

“People coming in every day to buy a sandwich off of us,” says Thok. “They come, they check in on Facebook, they’ll give us a great review, give us five stars. It’s everybody; it’s our whole community we have to thank for that.”

Cullen agrees, adding the community has been unbelievably supportive. Petrocco says it wasn’t about the dollar, it was about the support.

While each shop sells its own unique items, something you will find everywhere is a thank you, from a business owner who appreciates this precious community.

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