Kitchener-Waterloo·In Depth

Small businesses in Cambridge make it work through construction and COVID-19

Four independent businesses in the Preston Towne Centre have made changes since construction started on King Street and the pandemic affected their operations.

Businesses in Preston Towne Centre want to get message out: they're still open

Virtue Peake, Vanessa Stankiewicz and Miguel Pastor share the space at 739 King St. East in Cambridge for their independent catering businesess. "We are our own bubble," says Vanessa Stankiewicz. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

Construction connected them and COVID-19 keeps them together. 

The owners of Virtuous Kitchen and La Lola Catering on King St. E. in the Preston Towne Centre in Cambridge have become their own bubble as they share a space to prepare food for their separate catering businesses.

Vanessa Stankiewicz and her husband Miguel Pastor prepare authentic Spanish dishes for catered events. Virtue Peake has a contract to prepare meals for a private school, as well as personalized meal plans for people.

"The working relationship, I have to say, is probably one of the best that I've ever had in my working career," said Stankiewicz of La Lola Catering.

"We really do give our 50-50 and are very thankful that we have each other, especially during the pandemic. We've saved each other."

Peake had operated a storefront where she sold soup and sandwiches and freezer meals people could take home.

But the walk-in customers slowed down because of construction on King Street and she says it made no sense to keep the doors open. 

"Being able to know that you have a catering job, work for that job, get the supplies for that job, made a whole lot more sense," said Peake. 

"And it was less risky than paying somebody to stand here at the storefront when the construction just makes business really unpredictable."

And then Vanessa called 

The timing was right for both Peak and Stankiewicz, who called from Madrid. The Cambridge native was moving back to the city in June of 2019 with her husband, a chef from Spain. 

"We began focusing on catering and in-home entertaining, which is basically our forte," said Stankiewicz. 

"We bring kind of the Spanish fiesta to our clients, to their homes for when they have people over, they want something unique to experience with their friends and family or their guests."

Stankiewicz describes it as a rollercoaster ride for their company that included catering for home entertainment and weddings, pop-ups at the Kitchener Market and Vincenzo's in Waterloo.

When the pandemic happened, they needed to pivot the operation. Now customers order from their online menu and Vanessa delivers the food. It's a move, she says, helped them survive the winter and spring of 2020. 

Last month, they opened the storefront at 739 King Street E. in Preston with encouragement from Virtuous Kitchen where they offer gourmet products from Spain.

Construction and COVID

Down the street from Virtue and Vanessa is Leslie Zinger the owner of Top Market Family Farms. 

The business is a farm-to store-to-customer business that sells locally grown and made products. Zinger says construction started the year they opened.

"We've been open for four years and our first year we were dealing with construction on Shantz Hill," said Zinger.

"Same with year two and then year three, we were dealing with phase one and phase two of construction [in the] downtown Preston core. And then this year, we're dealing with phase three and phase four with construction downtown Preston core."

“We've been open for four years and our first year we were dealing with construction on Shantz Hill,” said Zinger. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

They used social media to tell customers how to get to their store during construction, and included maps and detour routes. With COVID-19, they started offering curbside pick-up.  

Zinger credits her customers who "understand the importance of local food" for the steady business.

She says they were also able to expand their space "to bring in more local food products and also give their customers more space."

Small business help

Shirley Bowman from Etcetera Linens and Gifts at 761 King St. E. says she's noticing a lot of Christmas business for people wanting to get their shopping done early.

Now in her 45th year of business, her store closed down completely in March and re-opened in May when she started to offer curbside pick up.

Bowman says there was help along the way for business affected by the pandemic and construction from the federal and regional level of government.

Shirley Bowman from Etcetera Linens and Gifts at 761 King St. East says there was help along the way for business affected by the pandemic and construction from the federal and regional levels of government. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

"What the federal government did for the grant program I think made a lot of us survive," said Bowman

"We had a wonderful participation with the Region of Waterloo, the City of Cambridge and with Navacon, who were our construction people. Their communication was excellent, we had regular meetings with them, they kept us up to date. Any issues at all they resolved."

Stankiewicz and Peake say the region's small business centre helped both of them enhance their online presence.

"The Waterloo Region Small Business Centre has helped us a lot with all sorts of resources, with Zoom meetings with other business owners in the region ... through an online store or through digital marketing," said Stankiewicz.

"I'm very thankful to Waterloo region for that, because I think if we don't support what we have locally, we are going to lose the heart of what the region is. What makes us unique and sets us apart are the small businesses that we have in the region. Without them, we are one in the rest of the million big box stores."

Businesses have had to make changes recently in order to adapt to changing consumer habits. That includes a lack of foot traffic in downtown cores. Businesses in the Preston Town Centre on King Street in Cambridge have been doing that for a couple of years. A four-phase construction project in the area is still going on. Between construction and COVID-19, how are businesses surviving. Julie Kwiecinski, the director of Ontario provincial affairs at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business offers some insight. 9:54



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