Customers benefit as local food businesses collaborate to weather COVID-19, writes Andrew Coppolino

Local food businesses didn't let the pandemic stop them. Instead, they decided to collaborate and they listened to what customers wanted and needed during a difficult year.

'I’ve found that since the pandemic, more people want to support local,' butcher Rob Brady says

Waterloo butcher Rob Brady says since the start of the pandemic, more of his customers have expressed a desire to support local. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Waterloo butcher Rob Brady stands near a display of small-batch bone broth made in Cambridge.

The jars represent just one of dozens of meat products, eggs, condiments, sauces and cheeses — with some goods made by area restaurants — that fill the shelves of Brady's Meat & Deli.

After a year of pandemic pivoting, local food businesses have generally seen a payback for their efforts to collaborate with other food producers.

"I've found that since the pandemic, more people want to support local," says Brady. "It's been huge."

It means increased revenues as well, according to Brady. "While restaurants are closed, more people have been cooking at home and we've been busier."

Restaurants use local ingredients for their menu, specialty producers like bakers collaborate with other producers, and specialty food stores have increased the local products they carry.

At Ambrosia Corner Bakery, Aura Hertzog says the logistics of keeping fresh baked goods on the shelves would have been impossible with fewer customers traffic visiting her Kitchener bakery during lockdowns.

The alternative was to boost the offering of local products that were refrigerated, frozen, shelf stable or otherwise non-perishable, says Hertzog. It was a way to keep revenue flowing over the past 365 days.

"Had I only made baked goods, I would have not survived. But I didn't pivot just to make money. I did it to help others and survive too," she says.

Having been dedicated to stocking shelves with local products and baked goods, collaboration has been a success because of a contract with customers. "The community demand enabled me to bring this to fruition," Hertzog says.

Collaborations within collaborations

Ajoa Mintah of Four All Ice Cream says collaborating has been helpful financially in tough times at the same time it provides mutual benefit for the parties – as it will in the future.

Her uptown Waterloo store carries croissants from Ghost Light Café, cookie dough from Crumby Cookie Dough Co., and pies from Just Love Pie.

"We will continue to sell these products and build ice cream flavours using products from other businesses," Mintah says.

A selection of locally made Four All Ice Cream is seen here for sale at Charles Quality Meats in Waterloo. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

In Galt, Cambridge, The Local Option, as the name states, uses local ingredients for its café menu of sandwiches, wraps, Buddha bowls and smoothies.

Having opened during the pandemic, working with local food suppliers was critical, and collaboration has been their philosophy, according to Aga Boekdrukker of The Local Option.

"We hope when customers come in they understand the concept and like and trust the concept," she says.

Highlighting collaborations on social media has helped drum up sales, according Tony Lobrutto of Charles Quality Meats; the Waterloo retail store has seen a year-long nudge in sales that include local firewood, hot sauces, frozen pies and Mintah's ice cream.

"If you want to be local, I don't think you have a choice but to incorporate other businesses in the area that have the same ideas as you," Lobrutto says. "I think adding Facebook and Twitter with some of these companies, it definitely helps in revenue. During this pandemic, it was huge."

(The Four All Ice Cream you can find at Charles Quality Meats itself has other layers of collaboration: some is made with chocolate from Reid's of Cambridge and packaged in Waterloo's Zero Waste containers.)

Tony Lobrutto of Charles Quality Meats stands by a display that includes locally made sauces and oils. Through his store, he's sold local firewood, hot sauces, frozen pies and Four All Ice Cream. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Not without restrictions

While seeking out opportunities for collaboration during the pandemic has been important to businesses for unearthing hidden revenue sources, they were impeded by the barriers erected by Covid-19, as we know all too well.

Andrew and Kim Wheeler own and operate Tomme Cheese Shop in downtown Guelph. Their collaborative efforts to boost revenue have included carrying local products in the store and selling gift baskets stuffed with their cheese and other local products like maple syrup, jellies, breads, and even craft beer across Ontario.

It was a successful venture, yet Andrew Wheeler, when he reflects on the past year, says that in some aspects collaboration has decreased as many businesses were forced to operate in their own "little silos" in order to survive.

Whereas Tomme's business model included collaborative pop-up visits to Guelph breweries to sell grilled cheese sandwiches before the pandemic, that revenue stream was cut off with COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns.

"Everybody's restrictions were different, whether you're dealing with a brewery or a restaurant, or another business. It was hard to coordinate because one business can do this and the other can't do that. I'd say we have probably collaborated a little less during the pandemic," he says.

COVID-19 restrictions will ease and collaborations, according to these businesses, will remain part of making money and nurturing the bottom line. The trend is likely to increase, too.

"Local has been building and building for a long time," Brady says about the collaborative concept. "With the pandemic, that's amplified."