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'We weren't going to let the pandemic stop us:' Cambridge businesses prove resilient

CambridgeToday talks to three businesses that coped with a year of lockdowns by pivoting, rebranding and expanding

Jay Brown can’t wait to see the lights blink on and doors swing open along Queen Street Friday as the city begins its slow reopen.

The province announced it will move into Step One of its reopening plan at 12:01 a.m. June 11 in response to a more robust COVID-19 vaccine rollout, and shrinking daily case counts.

Patios, outdoor fitness facilities, non-essential retail and public swimming pools, are all allowed to open under strict capacity limits laid out by the province. 

But it all comes with a reminder that we’re not out of the woods yet.  

“It is important to continue to practice public health measures, especially avoiding close contact with people you don’t live with, as we look towards Step One of reopening Ontario,” Waterloo region’s associate medical officer of health Dr. Julie Emili, said in a press release.

But for Brown, manager at Press Play Games, and many other independent small business owners, it’s the bright light they’ve been looking for at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

The board-game-themed restaurant he runs while his daughter, owner Alanna Gillis, is on maternity leave, opened in 2018 and expanded a little over a year later to offer in-house dining. 

The dining room had barely been open a month when the pandemic took hold, shutting down the kitchen and pausing the games. 

During the first lockdown, Press Play began offering takeout, opened briefly under “red zone” restrictions, and began renting their games out to customers by March 2021.

“We weren’t going to let the pandemic stop us,” Brown says.

Like many business owners in Hespeler, being from town and committed to keeping the lights on, is what kept them going, he says. 

But even with the support of the community, it's been tough.

Since they’re family-owned and operated, Brown says they weren’t eligible for wage subsidies. Fortunately, their landlord helped by applying for rent support. 

“And the community has been great,” he says.

Despite the support, not every Hespeler business made it through.

The Village Well shut down near the start of the pandemic, leaving a large, empty space in the middle of the core. Others got by with the help of online sales and curbside pickup.

Brown says it’s going to take a while for the gaming side of things to return, but when it does, they’re planning to go all-in, not only with board games, but e-sports too. A table of monitors, computers and a high-speed network is ready to welcome gamers. Eventually, they’ll be open seven days a week, he says.

This weekend, they plan to get the back deck patio open and next Saturday they’ll be out front when Queen Street shuts down for vehicular traffic.

For 20 weeks, starting Monday in Galt, where it runs seven days a week, portions of Queen and Main streets will be open for pedestrian traffic only. The program on Queen Street begins June 19 and runs every Saturday through October.

The executive director of the Downtown Cambridge Business Improvement Area says they’d hoped to launch the program last weekend, following the expiry of the stay-at-home order. But that changed with the extension of restrictions for open-air dining.

Brian Kennedy said the decision to kick it off on Monday was based on the province’s original reopening plan. This weekend was too short notice for the city to implement road closures. 

“We’re sticking to June 14,” Kennedy said, noting how difficult it’s been for his office in trying to navigate all the changes.

Helping local businesses get through the pandemic has been the main focus for the BIA over the last year, starting with administration of Digital Main Street grants, and a COVID-19 Business Resiliency Grant.

Digital Main Street is a government program in partnership with Communitech that gives any eligible small business access to up to $2,500 to enhance and strengthen their digital presence for online shopping.

Several local businesses took advantage of the program to boost online sales.

Kennedy says it will help them even after the reopening since some customers may not feel comfortable returning to in-store retail yet.

He says there have been "very few" closures in Cambridge despite a January estimate from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business that over 180,000 small business owners had contemplated pulling the plug during the pandemic.

A few notable ones that went that route in Cambridge include Blackwing Coffee Bar, Anubis Coffee Roasters, and Legendary Fitness in Preston. 

Kennedy expects more may come to light as reopening begins and some storefronts remain dark. 

Dance studio owner Laura Ramsay won't be one of them. 

Even though she's had a tougher time than most keeping the lights at Grand River Academy of Dance, she's looking forward to celebrating a 20th anniversary at her Franklin Boulevard studio later this year. 

“In one word, it’s been difficult, but I’ve kept my business afloat. My clients have stayed rather comfortable and loyal with what I've done. My clients have been really understanding and kind."

Ramsay says she took a different approach than most. Instead of offering online Zoom classes to students, she decided to shut the business down entirely for the safety of her students.

“I’ve been open 17 weeks of the last 15 months,” she says. 

Ramsay says she didn’t think it was fair to keep students paying for online classes that were a pale comparison to in-person instruction, so instead she offered free, pre-recorded classes and kept in touch with her students through trivia nights and other virtual get-togethers.

During the second lockdown, she made the decision to shut down her business entirely for the safety of the kids.

While it's undeniably been a setback, Ramsay said the decision has given her time to consider some changes she's been wanting to do since taking over the business in 2014.

She's working on rebranding with an updated logo, refreshing her studio space and updating the website.

Rethinking the business has been a nice distraction from worrying about how she’d be able to pull through, she says.   

Cambridge also has a few pandemic success stories. 

One of them is Sugar Daddies Bakery, which moved into its new Main Street space last Wednesday, more than doubling its size and presence in downtown Galt.

The key to its success is that Greg Gardner-Orbon and his partner David Gardner-Orbon started their business with online sales before they opened their Main Street storefront in 2018.

Greg, a full time data analyst for an insurance company and David, a government employee, came up with the idea for Sugar Daddies Bakery after they lost a combined 130 pounds over six months on the Keto diet. Soon they were making low-carb treats, breads and other baked goods and selling their products online.

Over the last year, they've ridden a wave of interest in the Keto diet in their brick-and-mortar store, kept up with online sales, expanded their product line, partnered with stores like Farm Boy and Sobeys and finally made the decision to move to 52 Main St. earlier this year.

Inside the former billiard hall, they're ready to serve coffee and an all-day breakfast once in-house dining resumes. Their patio will be open Friday.

Asked how they were able to thrive during the pandemic, Greg has a simple answer.

“When the pandemic hit, we basically went backwards,” he says, explaining how their entire store was already set up for online orders and curbside pickup.

Any worry their venture might be in trouble disappeared on Mother's Day last year when their first curbside pickup brought in 172 orders.

They immediately bought a refrigerated delivery truck to offer home delivery even though store traffic remained strong.

Store manager Sara Chaisson says they're also now catering to a range of new customers who are not just interested in low-carb items. Their sugar free and gluten free products are popular with diabetics and people with Celiac disease.

And revitalization continues in their old space at 33 Main St. where an Indian bakery is preparing to open soon.

"Downtown Galt has been very good to us," says Greg, who grew up in Cambridge and felt it was important to open a business here. "We've invested in this because we believe in downtown rejuvenation."