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The pandemic shut down many businesses, but these entrepreneurs found ways to survive

With Canada's non-essential businesses beginning to reopen after a four-month forced closure thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, three Dragons' Den alumni told us how they survived the lockdown, and how they plan to move forward in an uncertain future.

Halibut House

In mid-March, when Vince Kang realized all 29 Halibut House locations across Southern Ontario would close to dine-in service, his reaction was utter shock.

“It was us trying to understand what the next steps were going to be. We really didn't know,” says the 28 year old, whose family opened their first Halibut House location in 2004 in Port Perry, Ont..

In over 15 years in business, Halibut House never permanently closed a restaurant. As the director of franchise development, Kang wasn't letting COVID-19 break that.

“We've really tried our hardest to ensure our franchises aren't too negatively affected,” he says. “Obviously, no one is making money right now, but we're trying to do our best to stem the damage and make sure none of our franchisees are at risk of losing their business.”

To that end, Kang and the Halibut House head office began helping franchisees negotiate for rent deferrals. Halibut House also waived advertising and royalty fees they get from their franchisees every month, and negotiated lower insurance premiums while putting other supplier costs on hold.

"The pandemic taught us we can adapt."

“Every franchisee has my and my mother's cell phone number,” he says.“If there's an issue, we will do our best to rectify it quickly, so they don't have to go through multiple levels of corporate structure.”

Four people stand outside a new Halibut House restaurant holding a menu.
Two new Halibut House franchisees stand next to the Halibut House president and a Haliburton - Kawartha Lakes - Brock Member of Parliament. Photo credit: Henry Lam

The effort seems to be working. All Halibut House restaurants are breaking even in spite of the pandemic, none have closed and new locations have even opened throughout Ontario.

“I'm actually on my way to our Lindsay location to help with the cooking right now,” says Kang. “Anyone who works at Halibut House is part of our family whether they're blood-related or not. The pandemic taught us we can adapt.”

A group of people wears colourful nurse scrubs.
Wear It Forward's line of scrubs. Photo courtesy: Jasmine Begin

Wear It Forward

When the 28-year-old Jasmine Begin appeared in The Den to pitch her fashionable Christmas sweaters, Dragon Manjit Minhas asked her how she planned to sustain the business year-round.

Begin mentioned she was looking into integrating lifestyle clothing into Wear It Forward. But, after discovering nurses were major customers, she decided to sell scrubs and donate $5 from each sale to support nursing scholarships. However, there was one problem.

“We've sold over 6,000 Christmas sweaters and had only two returns based on sizing,” says Begin. “But when we first started with the scrubs there were so many returns because [nurses] like them fitted a certain way.”

So with approximately 800 scrubs in storage she launched the lifestyle line. Then the pandemic happened, and people who wouldn't normally wear scrubs started inquiring.

"Scrubs have definitely helped us survive this uncertain time."

“So many people reached out: from dentists offices to anyone in an office setting where employees were all together,” she says. “They just felt it was more sanitary for the office to wear scrubs.”

Before COVID-19, Wear It Forward was running “Buy scrubs, win a trip” promotion. Now, with zero marketing, they've sold as many sets of scrubs in the past three months than they have in the past two years.

“So many people have said to us, 'I know I can buy them on Amazon, but you guys are giving back and that's important’,” says Begin.

Wear It Forward raised $2,000 for nursing scholarships and is testing a more comfortable scrub material. Though Christmas sweaters are still more profitable, Begin sees scrubs as a bridge until Christmas.“They're not a game changer, but scrubs have definitely helped us survive this uncertain time.”

A woman steps out of a car and uses hand sanitizer to clean her hands.
The Unscented Company founder Anie Rouleau. Photo credit: Valérie Paquette Photography

The Unscented Company

But while Kang and Begin found ways for their businesses to survive, Anie Rouleau's business thrived.

Rouleau is the founder of The Unscented Company, a scent-free, environmentally-friendly cleaning and body products brand.

On March 13 — the day the world shut down — she was meeting with Loblaws' purchasing agent to get The Unscented Company in all of its grocery stores.

“At 1 p.m. they shut down Loblaws headquarters after us,” she says. “I knew it was serious because they literally said, 'No one is allowed in the building anymore.' Then, COVID hit hard, but I was in the right business. I was selling soap.”

She came home to find her inbox full of emails from people wanting soap. From then on, she saw sales increases on almost all of her products, from dish soap to laundry detergent.

“I think the only thing that didn't increase as much was shampoo and conditioner,” she says. “I don't think people were washing their hair as much because they couldn't go out.”

With $150,000 in online sales in April alone — a typical month is $10,000 — The Unscented Company was one of the lucky ones able to pay their rent, pay their suppliers, pay their employees and hire people during quarantine. As a B Corp certified business, (legally required to consider the impact of decisions on its workers, customers, suppliers and the community) one of Rouleau’s highest priorities is supporting locals. She partnered with Paul Cirka of Cirka Distilleries, located two doors from her office, to make hand sanitizer and help his business.

Hands squeezing a bottle of hand sanitizer.
Photo credit: Valérie Paquette Photography

“We rely on orders from restaurants, tours of the distillery and had even taken deposits on events that were now out of the question. So that little bit of revenue was absolutely important for us at the time,” says Cirka.

“I said, 'We're going to do a hand sanitizer with both our logos. You take all the profit, keep the lights on, pay your employees and we're going to make sure you get through this massive setback',” says Rouleau. “Now his worst times are behind him, he's alive and doing well, so through all of this, helping Paul is my most proud moment, even if my sales increased 1,000 per cent.”

Rouleau did not stop there. She continues to direct her customers to other small businesses she believes in by promoting them on The Unscented Company's social media pages

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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“The more we promote local, the more we buy local and that's the only way we're going to build a resilient, sustainable and strong economy,” she says.

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