What if you started when everything stopped?
What if you had the idea and the energy, the passion and the plan? What if you’d saved and sacrificed, tapped into your years of experience and expertise, mortgaged everything you owned, poured every spare moment into starting a business.
And then . . .
And then the pandemic stopped everything just after you opened or while you were negotiating bank loans and navigating government regulations, or as you were preparing to open a new location.
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What would you do to survive?
Here’s what several Tri-City businesses in the hospitality industry did.
BEER, BBQ & MASON JARS
“We threw our doors open on March 6 of 2020. It was absolutely packed in here. We have a 120-seat capacity. There were 120 people here, shoulder to shoulder.”
Kyle O’Genski is recounting opening day for Patina Brewing Co.’s Brew House & BBQ on Marpole Avenue in downtown Port Coquitlam — and in a sign of the different times from that day to May 2021, he’s talking about it over Zoom.
On that evening in the former bakery space, the Patina CEO and co-owner said, there would be “two people sitting at a table, and you’re seating two strangers with them just to use the space.”
“It seems mind-boggling now that we would even consider doing that.”
Nine days after its auspicious opening, at which the crowd chowed down on smoked beef brisket, barbecued ribs and pulled pork washed down by beer brewed on site, Patina closed its doors along with every other B.C. eatery and bar. While the ownership group and staff weren’t blindsided by the March 15 closure — they were aware of the spread of COVID-19 in Canada and pondered its possible effects — they weren’t fully prepared, either.
While “hoping for the best but trying to prepare for the worst,” O’Genski said, they scrambled.
Having already sunk a lot of money into the operation, Patina’s owners hadn’t planned to distribute their beer in cans quite so early. They settled on temporarily using mason jars, O’Genski said, so staff hit Canadian Tire stores throughout the region to buy up all the jars they could find. (Patina brews are now available in cans.)
Another pivot was reopening after two months to provide takeout only, with PPE and protections in place, and only the leadership team working — a tough call for a business that bills itself as a Living Wage Organization in an industry whose workers often earn the minimum plus tips. Patina also expanded its revenue streams beyond what had been laid out in its pre-pandemic business plan, adding catering and even picnic meals that could be enjoyed in nearby parks.
“It was some quick pivots throwing the business plan a little bit out the window and incurring a lot of costs up front,” O’Genski said.
And through it all, he said, team members had help, consulting with their counterparts at PoCo businesses Provincial Spirits, Northpaw Brew Co. and Tinhouse Brewing Co. as well as New Westminster’s Steel & Oak Brewing Co.
The revenue and regulatory challenges also forced the leadership group to get a handle on costs more quickly than the average busy new restaurant. O’Genski, a hospitality industry veteran, also credited the community for supporting the operation and the City of Port Coquitlam for supplying a closed-off laneway space to create a patio for safe outdoor dining.
Today, under the most recent restrictions, he said, that patio is still open, giving Patina 60 seats outside and another 60 — in groups partitioned by Plexiglas — inside.
And that means Patina has been hiring, bringing in about 90 percent of the staffing it had planned pre-pandemic, or about 28 people under restaurant leader Sarah Harbord and kitchen leader Connor Toews.
Many of them were there on March 6, 2021 for the first birthday celebration, where the sales numbers rivalled those of the opening a year earlier.
Patina’s next big challenge will come when all restrictions are removed, possibly in early September.
“We’re going to have to learn to operate with what normal is: our staffing capacity, how many people are going to be working in our kitchen on busy nights,” O’Genski said. “What is that going to look like for us as a business that has never done that?”
BY THE NUMBERS
How many entrepreneurs have begun businesses during the pandemic? Here are the numbers for new business licences issued by the three cities between March 1, 2020 and the end of May 2021:
- Coquitlam: 1,552 (compared to 1,406 in 2019);
- Port Coquitlam: 708 (comparable to recent years); and
- Port Moody: 500 (compared to 442 new licences in 2019).
The City of Port Coquitlam took a number of steps to aid business owners during the pandemic, including: extending the business licence renewal deadline from Jan. 4 to March 31; eliminating, in 2020, late fees for business licences; and extending the outdoor space program to help businesses meet physical distancing and other health protocols.
BUILDING A NEW BREWERY IN POCO
As Phil Saxe sees it, Boardwalk Brewing Co. had it relatively easy during the pandemic.
The latest entry into a flourishing Tri-Cities craft beer scene — there are 10 others in Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody, along with two distilleries — Boardwalk broke ground on its 4,500-sq. ft. space in PoCo’s Dominion Triangle in September 2020. Construction has been completed and now Boardwalk is waiting on liquor licences, with the goal of opening and pouring no later than Canada Day.
Boardwalk not only benefited from not having to handle construction while operating a business and negotiating pandemic restrictions, it also enjoyed lucky timing, said Saxe, a 20-year veteran of the hospitality industry, including management roles at bars and restaurants such as the Cactus Club chain. For instance, framing and the bulk of construction were completed before material costs exploded, he said, noting a supplier told him the white oak table tops for which he’d paid $400 apiece are now selling for about double that — and they’re hard to get.
The major COVID-19-related challenge Boardwalk faced, said Saxe, who’s project manager now and will transition to operations manager when the brewery opens, was scheduling. Trades crews were busy and they had to be booked in one at a time to keep appropriate distance. As well, some equipment coming from outside of the country was delayed.
Still, he said Boardwalk, which is owned by a number of Tri-Cities investors along with an interest by Vancouver’s Electric Bicycle Brewing, should soon start brewing its roster of offerings under executive brewer Drew Sinden and head brewer Darcy Parkes, from a crisp pilsner to a traditional west coast ale as well as popular hazy and sour beers.
“We’ve just been plugging away here, trying to get through the build,” Saxe said. Now, with the help of other businesses that have shared their paperwork, he and his team are finalizing a plan for opening — and for COVID safety.
ICE CREAM EXPANSION IN PORT MOODY
Port Moody’s Rocky Point Ice Cream is hardly a new business. In fact, it recently celebrated its 24th birthday, having started in a tiny, rented space in the back of a building at Rocky Point Park directly to the west of where a skate park now buzzes with activity.
But directly to the east of that same skate park is what’s new for Rocky Point Ice Cream (RPIC). Owners Jamie and Yvette Cuthbert have converted the former Western Safety building into the Canteen & Creamery, which opened April 27 serving food and drinks, and serving as PICs very own production facility (and is adorned with a mural painted by Ola Volo, an internationally famous artist who attended nearby Gleneagle Secondary School).
When they were offered the chance to buy the building in 2019, they had high hopes while at the same time realizing they were taking on a much larger task than the 2013 renovation that gave them their flagship spot at the Rocky Point swimming pool that’s known for fresh flavours and long summer lineups. (RPIC also has a store in New Westminster and several food trucks, and has recently signed a contract to operate a concession in a new city building in Coquitlam’s Town Centre Park.)
Although at first the Cuthberts weren’t sure they could afford to buy the building, they were optimistic they could make it work after connecting with the Business Development Bank of Canada.
“And then things soured when COVID hit,” said Jamie Cuthbert.
When negotiating loans, and with the business world in turmoil, they were asked to redo all their revenue targets. “It was like a dartboard of how much revenue would decrease by,” Jamie Cuthbert said, noting he and his spouse decided to refinance everything they owned.
One they had committed, though, they were juggling the challenges of construction while not knowing how their existing businesses would be affected by the pandemic and related restrictions. For instance, with the cancellation of assorted community festivals, they lost almost a third of their revenue that would have come from their food trucks.
“The worst thing was not knowing, having broken ground on this building and not knowing how long [restrictions were] going to be [in place],” said Yvette Cuthbert. “We were so scared. Were we doing it right? Were people going to be complaining? Are our staff comfortable?”
Day by day, grant application by grant application, crisis by crisis — including COVID-related supply chain issues with freezers and related equipment that delayed completion of the production facility — they worked through it, though Jamie Cuthbert said they feel guilty about the time lost with their children while they were wrapped up in work day and night.
“There was more Minecraft than I’d like,” he said.
Now, one of those kids is old enough to work in the family business along with 130 other employees, all of them negotiating operations in a restricted and protected pandemic world — and afterwards.
“I’m looking forward to reducing all those encumbrances,” Jamie Cuthbert said, “so that people can just come in and interact with the store the way they used to, that they can see our staff smile.
“Funny,” he added, “we’ve hired staff who have never dealt with customers the old way.”