Nova Scotia

These businesses started during the pandemic. Here's how it's working out

Three new businesses that started in the Halifax area during the COVID-19 pandemic are facing unique challenges as they navigate a harsh new landscape. Businesses that started in 2020 are ineligible for much of the help being offered by the federal government.

New businesses are ineligible for much of federal help during the pandemic

Serpent Brewing, Chanoey's Pasta and Yours, By E started during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Matt D'Entremont/CBC/Ellen Langley)

Three new businesses that started in the Halifax area during the COVID-19 pandemic are facing unique challenges as they navigate a harsh new landscape.

For Glen O'Keefe, head brewer and owner of Serpent Brewing in Spryfield, the pandemic couldn't have started at a worse time.

"Our business was affected pretty early on," he said. "People were barely even talking about coronavirus [in Nova Scotia] and already, we were sort of like, 'This could put us out of business.'"

O'Keefe first got the idea to start a brewery and taproom five years ago and spent years doing research, formulating a business plan, and fundraising to get his business off the ground.

Serpent Brewing received some initial funding through the Centre for Entrepreneurship Education and Development, the Business Development Bank of Canada and Futurpreneur, but the rest was self-funded.

Since "brewing equipment is insanely expensive," said O'Keefe, he decided to order his equipment from a manufacturer in China. He put down his deposit near the end of December 2019 — right before the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Wuhan.

Glen O'Keefe's business, Serpent Brewing, has been met with a lot of setbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Matt D'Entremont)

"I made the deposit on the equipment, I was with my family, we all sort of celebrated because I was finally going to live my dream … and then I wake up the next morning and the first headline I read was the coronavirus in China," said O'Keefe.

"I was like, 'Well, let's just see how bad it is.'"

As it turned out, it was bad. His equipment was delayed by more than six months, but O'Keefe's challenges would be far from over.

'You need to sell a lot of beer to pay rent'

With no product or equipment yet, O'Keefe spent $10,000 to cobble together an interim brewhouse from equipment sourced from the U.S. until his equipment arrived from China.

He managed to get Serpent Brewing's beer flowing over the summer and did curbside pickups to help pay for their first month of rent.

But, O'Keefe said, "you need to sell a lot of beer to pay rent down here." He was able to take on a business partner who gave him some financial help so the brewery could stay in its location at the Spryfield Shopping Centre.

The construction and opening of the Serpent Brewing taproom was also delayed due to a shortage of building materials, meaning the small company missed out on the window of opportunity over the summer and early fall when case numbers were low and people could gather in bars and restaurants. 

O'Keefe hopes to have the taproom open by the end of January, now that bars and restaurants are permitted to reopen.

"With curbside [pickup], we could never do enough sales to ever pay the rent. It's just not possible," he said. "Unless we can get this taproom open, there simply just won't be a business down here."

Little help for startups

The timing of Serpent Brewing's opening meant O'Keefe's business was ineligible for much of the federal help available to small businesses during the pandemic.

Serpent Brewing wanted to apply for a $40,000 Canada Emergency Business Account loan, but the company was ineligible since it had no payroll from 2019 and couldn't prove it had a decrease in revenue.

"Obviously, we're a startup so that didn't apply to us," said O'Keefe.

The business also wanted to apply for a loan through Futurpreneur, but it was ineligible for that as well because it had already received a loan from the organization before the pandemic.

O'Keefe said the business hopes to apply for a $60,000 CEBA loan, which it may qualify for once it's incorporated.

Glen O'Keefe hopes to open the Serpent Brewing taproom by the end of the month. (Matt D'Entremont)

He also said Serpent Brewing was able to secure a $20,000 loan through a provincial program — which helped, though it added to the business's growing pile of debt.

"Trust me, the last thing I need now is more debt," said O'Keefe. "But if it were not for that, I'm sure I would have been in a much worse situation."

He said he wants to see more help for new businesses that started right before or during the pandemic, which may be falling through the cracks.

"I do feel fortunate that I haven't had to lay off a bunch of employees over and over again, but I just felt that startups are sort of the face of innovation for the economy, especially in Halifax, and I wasn't seeing any love from the government," he said.

The office of Mary Ng, the federal minister of small business, export promotion, and international trade, said in an email there's "no one-size-fits-all solution for relief."

It said the government invested $1.5 billion in the regional relief and recovery program to support small businesses and entrepreneurs in regional-specific sectors and rural communities, especially those who don't qualify for other help. It also said it deferred GST, HST and custom duty payments.

"The work isn't over yet, and our government will continue to listen and do whatever it takes to bridge vulnerable businesses to the other side of the pandemic," the email said.

'It's our normal'

At Chanoey's Pasta in downtown Dartmouth, Catherine Paulino isn't sure how much the pandemic impacted their business, since she has nothing to compare it to.

"It's not a 'new normal' for us. It's our normal," she said.

Paulino and her husband, Carl Mangali, opened the pasta eatery on Portland Street in June. They signed the lease in January, before COVID-19 arrived in Nova Scotia, but the restaurant had been in the works before then. 

Chanoey's was originally planned to be a takeout spot instead of a sit-down one — a choice that paid off during the pandemic. Paulino described their business now as "steady."

"We're surviving. As long as we can pay bills on time, we can have food for our table … we are OK," she said. "I don't know if that's really great, but we're doing OK."

Catherine Paulino and her husband opened Chanoey's Pasta in June. (Alex Cooke/CBC)

The pasta place received a small business loan through the East Coast Credit Union, but it's mostly funded through Paulino's and Mangali's savings. Like O'Keefe, they are ineligible for much of the help offered by the federal government during the pandemic.

One of their bigger challenges has been advertising. 

"Chanoey's is new. Nobody knows about it, it's hard to get people to the front door," said Paulino. "We don't have a budget to advertise to TV, to radio, we only use social media as a platform, and then our customers. That's it."

Paulino believes there should be more help available to businesses that started during the pandemic.

"I think they should step up a little bit. I'm not saying that they're not doing anything, I'm just saying just a little bit to help [new] businesses," she said. "Not everyone is doing OK like us."

Paulino says business at Chanoey's Pasta, which was designed as a takeout restaurant, has been steady. (Alex Cooke/CBC)

On top of a global pandemic, the young business also had another setback to contend with: a break-in. In September, someone broke into the restaurant, shattering their door and stealing a cash register.

But Paulino said the community rallied around them to help them get back on their feet.

"We felt so loved. The customers got here that morning and helped us clean up the mess that the robber got us into," she said. 

The day after, she said, people lined up at the door to support Chanoey's. While it was a stressful situation, Paulino said the break-in was a "blessing in disguise."

"People tried our pasta, and 90 per cent of them are regular customers now," she said.

Brides still need their dresses

Ellen Langley, who co-owns the bridal boutique Yours, By E with her mom, said their business is actually doing "pretty well" so far.

The store opened on Granville Street in Halifax at the end of October, sandwiched between Nova Scotia's first and second waves of COVID-19. 

"It's intimidating," said Langley of opening in the middle of a pandemic, "but we try to stay positive, and the brides that we've had are just amazing and we really are lucky in that kind of regard."

Langley, a registered dental hygienist, had a vision of running a bridal store for a couple of years, but she and her mom decided to put the plan into action after the pandemic hit and she couldn't work anymore.

Ellen Langley and her mom, Tracy, outside Yours, By E. (Submitted by Ellen Langley)

While one might think wedding dresses aren't in demand right now, Langley said there are still plenty of people who are planning their perfect day.

"This is something they can look forward to, this is something they can plan," she said. "And getting their wedding dress ... that is a huge thing and a celebration in and of itself."

She also said some people are still getting married during the pandemic by opting for smaller ceremonies.

Langley said as a dental hygienist, she understands the importance of following the public health protocols and keeping things clean, so for now they are working by appointment only and are religiously sanitizing in between.

"There's different curves every day, and hopefully we are on the right track. I think we are."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Cooke

Reporter/editor

Alex is a reporter living in Halifax. Send her story ideas at alex.cooke@cbc.ca.

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