British Columbia

A café now focused on groceries: COVID-19 forces B.C. businesses to adapt to survive

As the world continues to change amid the COVID-19 health crisis, so too are businesses, forced to adapt and survive or shutter their doors, possibly forever.

'The name of the game is making sure that we're making enough to keep all of our staff employed'

Federal Store owner Colette Griffiths is focusing on offering groceries for pick up and now delivery during this health crisis. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC) (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Had you walked into the Federal Store in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood pre-coronavirus, you would have likely been treated to a hot coffee and a selection of baked goods. And while you can still grab a cup to go, you can also check off the items on your grocery list. Or even have them delivered.

As the world continues to change amid the COVID-19 health crisis, so too are businesses, forced to adapt and survive or shutter their doors, possibly forever.

And that capacity to adapt has helped the Federal Store and its employees ward off some of the hardships faced by other businesses, due to public health orders around physical distancing.

The store has always had a grocery licence and sold some items, but these days that's where the money is.

"Business has been pretty steady. It's actually up a little bit," said Colette Griffiths, the store's owner.

"But it's a little tricky because labour has gone up and so have expenses. Margins on groceries are not the same as café items."

However, she says it's the community support that has helped the business survive in this new environment.

Now as much grocery store as café, the Federal Store operates much like many of the heavyweights in the industry. It offers local delivery by donation or front door pickup at the shop. But unlike other grocery stores, only employees are allowed inside.

A customer visits the Federal Store in Vancouver on Monday, April 27, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"The name of the game is making sure that we're making enough to keep all of our staff employed," said Griffiths.

"A lot of them have been with us for quite a long time and we want to make sure that we can continue to make things work for all of us."

Wage subsidy a welcome relief

In fact, because the business has been steady, the Federal Store only qualifies for a portion of the federal government's new Canada emergency wage subsidy which began accepting applications Monday.

The subsidy can cover up to 75 per cent of wages for businesses that have seen a drop in revenue due to COVID-19.

The Federal Store qualifies for a 10 per cent subsidy which Griffiths says will make a big difference.

"Especially, because our labour cost has gone up by about 50 per cent, so knowing that we're able to offset a little bit of that with the 10 per cent is really major."

For other businesses like OEB Breakfasts, a popular brunch spot now facing an 80 per cent revenue loss, the subsidy means employers can rehire staff they were forced to lay off at the onset of the pandemic.

Oeb Breakfast Co. operating partner Rob Pauley is pictured with eggs for sale outside his restaurant in Vancouver on Monday, April 27, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC) (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Operating partner Rob Pawley says, much like other businesses in the food industry, he was forced to convert to a takeout and delivery only service model. He hopes to qualify for as much of the subsidy as possible to bring his team members back into the fold.

"It's going to be a good help," said Pawley. "It certainly won't cover everything but it will get us back on track and hopefully [we'll] be able to bring more business in."

Food for sale inside OEB Breakfast Co. restaurant in Vancouver on Monday, April 27, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC) (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

And just like the Federal Store, Pawley says the pandemic and its restrictions have forced his business to be innovative and adapt.

Along with the takeout service, OEB Breakfast has also gotten into the grocery business, selling fresh eggs, artisanal bread and quality meats from a local butcher shop.

"It hasn't been easy. But we're doing our best and trying to come up with different approaches to take care of our guests," said Pawley.

And while he's hopeful his restaurant will qualify for Ottawa's previously announced rent-relief program as well, overall, he says the health crisis has taught him to think differently about how to operate a business.

With files from Tina Lovgreen

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