Unprecedented. It’s the word most often used to describe the times we’re living in. The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown has forced Calgary’s small business community to adapt and cope. From complete shutdowns to spikes in demand, these businesses are doing their best to ride out the pandemic wave as unscathed as possible. In this month’s cover story, we hear from four local business owners on how they are managing and looking to the future.
Like most other restaurants in this city, Barcelona Tavern was forced to shut its doors when the pandemic hit. “We actually closed before the government mandated it, because we felt it was in the best interests of our staff and customers,” says Jeff Hanna, Managing Partner. “Of course not realizing that it was going to go on for so long. We thought it would be a three or four-week thing.”
Most of the 60 staff members were temporarily laid off, and though a delivery service was not initially in place, one was started in April. “We’ve had good traction on it, but it’s super competitive too,” Hana says. “We have a backyard barbecue program with a focus on family-style meals. More classy-comfort food that’s going to hit home not just with our regular day-to-day corporate crowd, but with families and everybody else.”
They chose to forgo the use of a third-party delivery service due to the cost. “They make all the money,” Hanna laments. “We didn’t see the value in doing that. It’s mostly curbside pickup and we will personally deliver to friends, family and our valued customers.”
Barcelona’s catering business has continued in operation as well: “We just recently catered a 40th birthday where we hand-delivered everything and picked it all up the next day – dishes and everything.”
Once re-opened on June 1st, the focus was on doing everything as perfectly as possible. “It’s about gaining trust from our clientele so that they know that we’re doing everything that is required, but also going above and beyond to make sure they feel completely safe and comfortable in this environment.”
The large space of the restaurant means the 50 per cent capacity restrictions are easily met, as well as all Alberta Health Services requirements (including mask wearing for all staff). “We’re following all the best practices, and otherwise it’s business according to the new normal,” Hanna says. “We’re very excited to be back up and running.”
“When someone walks through the door we roll out the red carpet to make sure they feel like a million bucks,” Hanna says. “We’re so thankful they chose to come here. We want them to feel totally comfortable and safe, have fun and enjoy our delicious food. We want to gain that loyalty and trust again from everybody and are truly hoping that everyone comes out to support us since we’re locally owned and operated.”
Bon Ton Meat Market
Qualifying as an essential service and thereby remaining open throughout the pandemic, Bon Ton Meat Market has experienced a surge in business since the shutdown began. “We’re up over 50 per cent,” says owner Greg Keller. “About 20 per cent of that is through the store, but the vast majority is phone-in orders and curbside pickup. We’ve seen a swell of people who don’t want to go shopping three times a week for their fresh meat, so they buy a big order ever two to three weeks.”
Specializing in high-quality, locally-sourced fresh meat as well as desserts and specialty deli products, Bon Ton has had to adjust its operations to the current situation. “We used to be able to complete same-day orders but not anymore,” Keller explains. “Our customers have been very understanding.”
Operations inside the store have been adjusted too. “We talked to Alberta Health Services and based on the type of business we are we now let one customer in for every staff member that is available to serve them,” Keller explains. “We have somebody at the door explaining the distancing protocols to our customers. The vast majority of people are great. We’re very aware of making sure increased sanitation procedures are strictly followed.”
Maintaining an adequate supply of product to meet the demand has been no issue. “Our pork and poultry are from local suppliers and we’ve had no issues,” Keller says. “Our beef is Canada Prime and certified Angus and we always carry at least a month and a half to two months supply, because we age it. When the pandemic began, we bought another month’s supply.”
Bon Ton also sourced beef from restaurant suppliers who wound up with a large surplus of beef when restaurants, conventions and events were forced to close or cancel. “Some of those suppliers carry the same high-end beef that we do, so we stepped in and bought a ton from them. We’ve had no issue whatsoever with supply.”
A stellar staff has been Keller’s saving grace. “I really am very humbled and moved by how amazing my staff has been,” he praises. “We’ve had no grumbling, no complaining. They’re tired but they’ve been absolutely tremendous.” With the earlier closing time, a new, light-hearted tradition was instituted: “After we lock the doors we all sit down, take a break and everybody has a Corona beer. We have a good little laugh and it’s just about the camaraderie. We have a great time.”
Supreme Fashion Connection
Supreme Men’s Wear is celebrating its 72nd year in Calgary. Like so many other multi-generational local family run businesses, Supreme continues to accept market conditions and challenges, embrace change and evolve to be of relevance and service. With legendary family, community love and support, Darren Biedermann is “all in” to keep the doors open and the vision alive.
Supremes’ vision is to offer a sense of belonging and connect people with an authentic and vibrant community. In these times of change, Biedermann is as insightful and optimistic as ever, embracing the challenges life presents with gratitude and a powerful presence.
“Through this, the one thing that really comes to the surface is our basic human need for community and connection,” Biedermann says of the pandemic. “The sense of belonging to a community is empowering and a lot of people feel it through something like this. We are all in this together.”
“I think it was a good time for everybody to slow down and ask themselves some hard questions,” he continues. “When we really look at it, we realized rock bottom is a good foundation to build dreams upon. This provides a fresh start for a lot of people.”
“Everybody sees each other, and we evolve together,” Biedermann reflects. “It’s like that Freud saying: ‘One day in retrospect, the years of struggle are going to strike you as the most beautiful.’”
Supreme has continued to transform throughout the shutdown, including shifting towards an all gender inclusive shopping experience. “Many changes are occurring at Supreme,” Biedermann explains. “We’d like to have something of interest for absolutely everybody that comes through the door and offer best in class products with story and purpose.”
Over the last year, in the spirit of community connection, Supreme has hosted many one of a kind events, something Biedermann plans to continue to grow once restrictions are eased: “We are all set up for self-catering, live local music and local artisans. We’re always trying to use Supreme in every possible way to pull together community.”
Supreme continues to live by its vision of being an authentic, vibrant and connected cornerstone of our community: “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
Warner Shelter Systems Limited
For fifty years, Warner Shelter Systems Limited (WSSL) has manufactured tents for a range of special events, trade shows, catering and outdoor concerts to warehousing and industrial use. From its 10-acre plant in Calgary’s Foothills Industrial park, WSSL sells and rents its tents across North-America and abroad, with long-term clients including the Calgary Stampede (a contract held since 1984).
When the pandemic lockdown happened in mid-March, its operations went quiet. “No one knew what was going to happen next,” says Chad Struthers, Vice President. “We kept our construction crew and office staff, but the manufacturing, steel shop and fabric shop were off for a month.”
By mid-May, approximately half of the business’ 60 full-time employees were back to work, thanks to two new contracts for car lot canopies. The hail canopy business began in 2015 when local car dealerships lost their hail insurance. The use of canopy covers – initially intended to protect car dealerships strictly from hail – has the added benefit of also providing cover against snow, rain and sun, allows for pleasant experience for dealers’ clientele and keeps detailing and snow removal budgets down. This protection has grown in popularity with local dealers. In May, WSSL received its 31st and 32nd contracts.
“Our product provides 365 day-per-year coverage,” Struthers says proudly. “Customers can walk around and look at vehicles completely covered from all the elements. Dealerships have a lot less cleanup and their detailing shops have less to do. Our customers are over the moon, really happy.”
With hail season spanning roughly from June 15 to August 15, WSSL is busy. “The last two contracts we signed – with Infinity Ford in Carstairs and Tricycle Lane Ranch, a division of Burnco that provides offsite storage for Lone Star Mercedes – happened in May, and we said we’d be able to get their canopies installed before the end of June. That’s as good as you’re going to get when you order a month ahead in this day and age.”
WSSL sold some tents for COVID testing, but the cancellation of this year’s Stampede was a major blow, as was the restriction on large-scale events, the tents for which WSSL almost exclusively supplies in Calgary. With the easing of restrictions on events of less than 50 people, Struthers is optimistic this business will pick up into the summer.
A major contract with the Department of National Defence for a training project in Wainwright scheduled for mid-March was postponed, but Struthers is confident it will be rescheduled soon.
“We’re quite diverse,” Struthers points out. “Between oil and gas, construction, government, events and the car lots we have a variety of industries to rely on if one or more gets shut down. We’re lucky in that way.”