Strip mall merchants navigate anxieties, hopes and challenges of the pandemic

They're an odd patchwork of businesses: French bakery, meat market, martial arts dojo, vegan restaurant and a distillery. But they are bound by a single address, a modern strip mall on the edge of an industrial park located in northeast Calgary.

'We feel like we're a little community,' business owner says

Business owners at a strip mall in northeast Calgary are striving to make it through the pandemic. Top row, left to right: John Wildenborg of Master Meats, Randy Chung of Kodokan YYC, and Philippe Poncet of Éclair de Lune. Bottom row: Ivan Cilic of Burwood Distillery, and Nan Thammanatr and Eahly Shirley of Hearts Choices. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

They're an odd patchwork of businesses: French bakery, meat market, martial arts dojo, vegan restaurant and a distillery.

But they are bound by a single address, a modern strip mall on the edge of an industrial park located in northeast Calgary.

More than that, these merchants are now connected by the shared trials of a pandemic.

They know the personal tragedy of the virus. There have been layoffs. One business helped with a hand-sanitizer shortage. Another is providing free meals to raise people's spirits.

"We all know each other," said Jordan Ramey of Burwood Distillery.

"Our paycheques have different signatures on it, but we feel like we're a little community right up there in the northeast."

Collectively, they are a reminder that when economists or politicians speak of COVID-19's impact on small business, they're also talking about communities.

All the merchants at this strip mall have so far navigated the pandemic's fallout, each striving to make it through to the other side. 

But there's little doubt, with new provincial restrictions and vaccines some way from being broadly available, treacherous territory still lies ahead for many small businesses in Alberta.

Exterior of Kodokan YYC, a martial arts centre located at 4127 6th St. NE in Calgary. It's among the businesses that will have to temporarily close under Alberta's new pandemic restrictions. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

On hold again

Randy Chung first felt the strain earlier this year.

The pandemic brought martial arts classes at Kodokan YYC to a halt in March. They stopped as a precaution initially but that was soon followed by province-wide restrictions.

"Those three months were tough," said Chung, who runs the centre with his brother, Walton. 

That's when the calls from students came, telling Chung they had to cancel training or stop a payment. 

When the dojo reopened in June, they started to rebuild. By September, things appeared to be getting back to normal. 

But in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases in the province, they were told again to stop group classes. Now, under the new restrictions, everything is on hold. 

As of Sunday, restaurants, pubs and bars had to close in-person service while entertainment and recreation facilities, such as movie theatres and gyms, as well as personal and wellness services such as spas and hair salons closed entirely. The restrictions will be in place until at least Jan. 12.

Some clubs and gyms have shuttered in recent months, unable to absorb the financial knocks. Chung hopes improvements to pandemic relief programs for small businesses will help the community.

So he tries to stay positive, determined to find a way forward for the dojo and to keep inspiring his students. 

"We just roll with the punches," he said. "And find ways to survive." 

"We just roll with the punches and find ways to survive," said Randy Chung, owner of Kodokan YYC, in Calgary. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Fewer customers but spending more

Chung's neighbours in the mall are sure to be rooting for him. The idea of a shutdown of their business for weeks or months is probably not one they'd like to entertain themselves. 

Philippe Poncet hopes his bakery remains an essential service, though he successfully applied for federal loans in case he needs the help later. 

"In April, we thought that this would be done by the summer," he said. 

Poncet moved Éclair de Lune to the strip mall last year and, fortunately, has been able to stay open during the pandemic, though not without change.

It closed its seating area and customer washrooms, erected Plexiglass barriers and restricted the number of customers allowed in the bakery at one time. Customers have continued to come.

"We're not seeing drastically more [customers] ... but they're spending more," said Poncet, noting the interest in frozen goods that can prepared at home.

Éclair de Lune owner Philippe Poncet in his bakery, where he says business is up over last year. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

In fact, after three trying years in the wake of the oilpatch downturn, business has actually rebounded and is better than last year, though not as good as five years ago.

People wanting to treat themselves during the pandemic is likely one factor, Poncet said. But he also acknowledged the support of his neighbours in the mall who have helped bring customers.

Virus hits close to home

One of those neighbours is Master Meats, a decades-old butcher shop that moved to the mall four years ago.

The owner, John Wildenborg, frequently points customers to other businesses in the mall, including singing the praises of the vegan restaurant next door.

Like the bakery, he's been allowed to keep his doors open as restrictions have come and gone and come again.

But the virus has affected him in other ways. His 91-year-old mother, who was living with dementia, died in a care home from COVID-related pneumonia in April. 

"I know firsthand what this is all about, so I would hate for that to happen to someone else."

Butcher John Wildenborg, owner of Calgary's Master Meats, wears a mask while he works during the COVID-19 pandemic in November. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

He welcomed the new restrictions the province has introduced, adding the economy would've still suffered if nothing was done because of the impact of more workers getting sick. 

He only wishes the government would have introduced them earlier, which might have limited the impact for businesses over the busy holiday season.

Business is up slightly over last year at his shop, but he expects it will feel a bit of the trickle down effect of restaurants closing for several weeks.

Still, he is thankful for the support of customers and his fellow merchants, including one who came through with hand sanitizer when supplies got tight last spring.

The help came from Burwood, a craft distillery with a full-service cocktail lounge. 

When the pandemic hit, things moved quickly and shortages of hand sanitizer erupted. 

"It was scary at first but we managed to pivot early ... and we decided to get into the hand sanitizer side," said Ivan Cilic, one of Burwood's owners.

Burwood Distillery closed its cocktail lounge on Sunday, but the company has done well with its online sales and deliveries business. Expansion plans are in the works. (Kyle Bakx/CBC News)

With that move, the firm managed to shuffle some employees from its lounge, which had to be closed, to working on hand sanitizer, packaging and labelling.

Early on, lines of people stretched around the mall to get some. Burwood also donated its product to charities, first responders and health-care workers. 

Sanitizer sales have slowed, but it continues to supply local restaurants through a distributor. A portion of the proceeds goes to charity.

Co-owner Jordan Ramey said he's been surprised to see sanitizer imports when Canadian suppliers have stepped up. It's an issue distillers are raising elsewhere, too.

But Burwood is managing its way through the pandemic, getting a good response to its online sales and deliveries business. Expansion plans are in the works.

The fate of the lounge, which will be closed under the new restrictions, is less clear.

"That part of the business, we're not even sure will reopen next year," he said last week.

Early on in the pandemic, Burwood Distillery began making hand sanitizer to help with shortages of the product. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Giving back

When asked if he agrees with the new rules, Ramey said it's tough to be in a pandemic and know what the right decisions are. But he said he'd trade money for a family member any day.

Ramey lost one uncle to the virus and another to complications from cancer in recent months. 

"Sometimes the business isn't the most important thing in your life," he said.

There's also the desire to help.

Nan Thammanatr and Eahly Shirley, the owners of  Hearts Choices, a vegan restaurant, saw the anxiety caused by the pandemic and thought about what they could do.

Early on, they provided free meals to health-care workers and those who worked in care homes. Months later, they're still preparing free food, but now providing it at their restaurant on Wednesdays between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Hearts Choices, a vegan restaurant in northeast Calgary, has been offering free food on Wednesdays during the pandemic to help raise people's spirits. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Anyone who wants one is welcome. 

"We still do it just to keep giving back," Shirley said, adding they probably give away more than 150 meals or more each week.  "A lot of people have been impacted financially."

Thammanatr added: "We help as much as we can."

Hearts Choices has closed its dining area but take-out service continues here and at their nearby noodle house. 

Nan Thammanatr and Eahly Shirley are the owners of Hearts Choices, a vegan restaurant based in Calgary. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

With months to go before vaccinations can offer a glimpse of normalcy, small business owners across the province will no doubt continue to be tested and face difficult decisions.

When those decisions are made, their impact doesn't occur in isolation.

They ripple out into the communities they serve and those they make themselves, like with their neighbours in a strip mall.

"Every one of those facilities is operated by somebody that is just extremely passionate about their job, their work, their industry," said Ramey of Burwood Distillery.

"That's really what brings us together as a community."


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