As Kitchener business owner waits for provincial grant, new stay-home order changes things again

The owners of two Kitchener businesses, Play-A-Latte and Living Fresh, say the new stay-at-home orders will continue to hurt businesses deemed non-essential and could change the retail landscape in the region.

'We still haven't received a dime,' Ronak Patel says of funding

Ronak Patel, shown with his partner Heather and their children, owns Play-A-Latte, and says he's applied for a small business grant through the province to help with COVID-19 costs but received only a fraction of what he was expecting. (Play-A-Latte Cafe/Facebook/Ronak Patel)

In announcing the new stay-at-home order that started Thursday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford told small businesses forced to close or move to curbside pickup, "We will continue to have your backs."

But Ronak Patel, who owns the indoor playground and coffee shop Play-a-Latte in Kitchener, isn't confident he'll see financial help anytime soon.

He applied for a small business grant on Jan. 30. He didn't hear anything until he called the province on March 5. The business was approved for a $10,400 grant on March 16 despite a 63 per cent drop in revenue.

Patel said that under the program, he thought he would receive more funding. He's had no response about why the grant wasn't larger.

The indoor playground portion of his business has been closed for a year. Patel said he decided to offer toys for sale as a way to stay profitable during the pandemic.

"If we had to just close our doors and wait for a cheque to come in — that we didn't know were even going to come in — we might have been financially better off doing it that way versus buying inventory for the retail side of our café," he said.

"And we still haven't received a dime from that ... how many payrolls have we gone through since January to now? How many rent and utility bills have we picked up?"

As of just after midnight Thursday, Patel has had to start changing how he serves customers.

"Now that just becomes a curbside pickup and virtual ordering process instead. So it just pushes customers outside of the door and we just have to work that much harder to stay in front of them and get their attention."

Important to buy local

During Ford's announcement Wednesday, he said retail businesses can operate for curbside pickup or delivery. Larger retailers are allowed to sell essential items only, including groceries, personal-care items and pharmaceuticals. 

Small business booster Joani Gerber said that while stay-at-home orders will hurt locally owned businesses, the fact big-box stores have to limit what they sell will "level the playing field a little bit.

"It's a small win in a very large, large battle," said Gerber, CEO of investStratford. 

She said businesses in Stratford have created online stores and moved to curbside pickup or delivery.

"We will be reminding all of our residents that shopping local is also curbside and also online, and checking in with the downtown retail business owner when you're looking to purchase something before immediately going to one of the larger online retailers," she said.

During what may be a quieter four weeks for businesses in the area, Stratford Perth Centre for Business will also offer seven free webinars along with the Huron County Economic Development. It will help businesses create the mandatory COVID-19 safety plans required by the province. 

Gerber added that when the stay-at-home orders are lifted, "We want to see as many businesses open and operating in a safe and healthy way, not only for their customers, but for their employees."

Rhapsody Barrel Bar in downtown Kitchener is among many businesses that have closed during the pandemic. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

'Things are going to look a lot different'

Tina Sharpe, owner of Living Fresh, a floral shop in downtown Kitchener, said the province's stay-at-home order will be felt throughout the region's retail landscape.

I don't want to be locked down, but at the same time, it's the only thing that makes sense to keep us safe.- Tina Sharpe, owner of Living Fresh

"Things are going to look a lot different after this because there's not going to be many small businesses left," she said.

She also struggles with the idea of stay-at-home orders.

"I don't want to be locked down, but at the same time, it's the only thing that makes sense to keep us safe."

Sharpe said the past year has "definitely been one of the most challenging years we've ever experienced in business." 

She moved out of downtown Kitchener earlier this year as she watched other businesses close and fewer people walk into her store. As she researched the best area to move to, she recalled driving along King Street from Kitchener into uptown Waterloo.

"We hit uptown Waterloo and I literally burst into tears because downtown Kitchener was a dead zone. There was nobody on the streets and uptown Waterloo had people all over. It was bustling." 

Sharpe ultimately chose St. Jacobs for her new location because of the vibrant retail scene, even now: three lockdowns and more than a year into the pandemic.

'The bills add up'

Sharpe received grant funding that helped cover some costs, but said the province could do more to support businesses.

"Sometimes it's not enough for a small business to be operating at a lesser capacity," she said. "The bills add up."

She also said municipal leaders need to be more transparent about the advocacy work they're doing on behalf of small businesses.

"I don't see the municipal government lobbying at all for small business. They don't come into my shop and see how I'm doing and, you know, check in. I'm two blocks from city hall."


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