Hamilton·In Depth

COVID-19 bullied Ottawa Street: Here's how one city block is fighting back

One block of the city shows how COVID-19 hit every store differently. The small, locally owned businesses have all tried to survive months with fewer customers, fewer supplies and fewer ways to make money, all the while facing the same expenses.

Some stores are opening for the first time ever while others mulled over closing forever

Business owners are all facing a similar reality on an eerily quiet Ottawa Street — the street seemed close to reaching a point of no return, but days before Stage 2 reaches Hamilton, life is re-emerging on the street. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

A trio of millennials were forced to delay their grand opening and redesign their newly bought restaurant for a post-pandemic world.

A store with lots of eager customers had no more stock to offer them.

An owner who fears her business will soon be on life support.

A business used to face-to-face service forced to turn to the internet to save itself.

Hope and uncertainty

These are some of the challenges COVID-19 has imposed on local small business entrepreneurs on Ottawa Street North as the virus has taken a toll on the historic shopping district.

The pandemic has hit almost every business hard, but talking to owners between Barton Street East and Cannon Street East offers a glimpse at how hard the pandemic bullied one of the city's most vibrant commercial streets and how the local owners are adapting to survive. 

While most businesses can start opening on Friday and have proven resilient, months of reduced cash flow have hemorrhaged their accounts and the immediate future holds both hope and uncertainty.

Redesigning for a new normal

Merve Kosesoy, Matt Yilmaz and Cem Sam are opening their first business in the city —in the middle of a pandemic.

While some stores risk closing their doors forever, the owners of Matt's Burger Lab had to think about how to survive before even getting a chance to open.

"We were worrying," Ylimaz said.

Matt Yilmaz, Merve Kosesoy and Cem Sam all stand in an empty storefront next to the Avon Theatre, measuring where their tables and chairs will go. They bought the location in April and plan to turn it into a burger joint — but opening a store during the COVID-19 pandemic is as hard as it sounds. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

They found themselves having to scrap their original design plans, trying to rethink the vision of a cozy dining experience they'd imagined for months. But there was an upside.

"We're designing for dining, but with physical distancing in mind," Yimaz explained.

Kosesoy added that design wouldn't be permanent though,and eventually they would bring their dreams of a communal dining vibe to life.

"Let's say in a year or so, we'll still design it the way we want it."

The trio also explained they caught a break after their landlord allowed them a break from rent. They started construction on June 1 and hope to open in July.

Matt Yilmaz is a co-owner of the Matt's Burger Lab location in Hamilton. He said without rent relief from his landlord, the location likely would have shuttered before getting a chance to open. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Open and scared

 Up Ottawa Street toward Barton, Mona Long reopened her store, jms Treasure Chest, at the end of May. Long, 70, said she opened out of necessity, despite being scared.

The golden, yellow storefront, full of furniture, antiques, china sets and vintage collectible sets of baseball cards and comic books, was facing near death.

"We're going to be in a hole at the end of the week … yesterday I only sold $23," she told CBC News on May 26.

"I'm scared. We worked very hard to get this business … all the effort to get this going, where is it going to go? I don't know … this is not the Ottawa Street I'm used to seeing."

Mona Long, 70, feared her store would close when it reopened at the end of May. Days before Stage 2 arrives in Hamilton, Long has a new sense of hope. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The shop started as a hobby and a way to sell some of Long's inherited belongings of her late brother. It blossomed into a business — all of that was on the line.

But her prospects have changed as Hamilton is poised to enter Stage 2.

"I'm very surprised, I thought it will be so slow and we're not going to make enough money to survive, but it's been pretty good," she said on Wednesday.

She said online sales saved her store.

The pivot to internet sales has been crucial for some of the Ottawa Street businesses, particularly restaurants and food spots.

A pivot to online

Crystal Latendresse, owner of Keto Kravings and Sola Flowers, is almost right on the corner of Ottawa and Barton. Her colourful, food-filled shop has been able to keep running, but her other business, making wooden flower arrangements lost most of its customers due to cancelled weddings and ceremonies. The money from Keto Kravings was its lifeline.

"I wasn't eligible for any financial aid because I have no payroll, I'm the sole proprietor."

Business has picked up since then,

Latendresse's diet store survived by offering free food delivery for customers. She drove the orders around town herself.

Staff at the Oxford Mills Outlet measure the length of two metres to stick strips of tape onto the sidewalk for customers who want to shop. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Lockdown busy

But it seems residents are trying to fill their free time with home improvement projects. Brittany Vottero, an employee at Benjamin Moore Hamilton Decorating Centre, said it has been "hog wild since the lockdown."

She told CBC News she wasn't expecting it, as she stood behind stacks of boxes full of supplies.

While the business on Ottawa and Campbell is doing well because of curbside pickups, the pandemic still takes a toll on employees. They're working longer, lonelier hours.

"I missing seeing humans. I just want to spend time with my family," she said.

Sue Moffatt of Maxam Fitness said she has had to turn business away because the store can't resupply, with many of its items coming from China. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Fate has had different plans for Sue Moffat, back up near Barton. She owns Maxam Fitness, which sells gym and weight room equipment.

With gyms closed, it was an opportune time for Moffatt to make money.

The only problem is customers stopped coming because she had no product left. It made business "extremely slow" and made it near impossible to serve the few customers who did want to buy.

She spends most days standing in a lonely storefront answering calls while her room full of unused gym equipment sit empty and idle.

"I don't have stock because most of it comes from China," Moffatt explained. "I can't get anything for customers because we don't have it. It makes us feel bad because we have to tell people we can't help them."

Her saving grace is not having a landlord to pay rent to, but business is still slower than normal, even with Stage 2 approaching.

Fabric for masks

Diane Scattolon said her business has helped customers make their own masks to protect themselves from COVID-19. It's been motivation for her to work out of the business instead of sticking to online sales. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)
Her neighbour, Diane Scattolon has also run out of some supplies, but its been an entirely different reality. Discount Fabric Mart customers are greeted by vibrant hues, colourful cottons and saturated textiles when they walk in.

The family business closed in March after not being labelled essential. When they opened in the middle of May, customers were flocking to the store to buy materials for homemade face masks. Scattolon and her family had trouble keeping elastics and other fabric in stock because of the high demand.

"That's what motivates me to keep coming in," she said.

Maggie Burns, the event coordinator and office administrator of the Ottawa Street BIA, says businesses have adapted quickly by building websites and modernizing after decades of operating the same way.

The main concerns from owners, Burns said, have been questions about purchasing protective personal equipment, some of whom have teamed up to buy orders together, while others asked about when they should open their doors.

She also noted Ottawa Street has a consistent vacancy rate, which hasn't changed drastically.

Kerry Jarvi, is executive director of the downtown BIA, and the representative on the city economic recovery task for for all BIAs in the city. She said small businesses have been resilient, but the pandemic has hit all of Hamilton's commercial districts.

She added that some landlords haven't done anything to support businesses.

"It's shortsighted because I'm not sure right now, if a landlord did lock out a tenant, how long it would it would take to get a new one ... the more businesses you have, the more life you have on the street," she explained.

But businesses are seeing an upswing now with Stage 2 about to hit Hamilton.

Jarvi said it's not a resurgence, pointing out that the task force still needs a long term plan for businesses, but that Stage 2 is a step in the right direction.

"They're still not operating at full capacity ... but we're doing what we have to do to get by."

About the Author

Bobby Hristova

Reporter/Editor

Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca

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