'Just holding it together': Small businesses look back as pandemic hits 2-year mark

Ottawa's small business owners say two full years of pandemic public health measures have shaped the way they do business.

Several say they've embraced a range of strategies to survive

Harikrishnan Radh and Anil Kumar, two of the co-owners of Kochin Kitchen, discuss rebuilding their restaurant on Saturday, one day after the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ben Andrews/CBC News)

In a ByWard Market dining room built for nearly a hundred people, Harikrishnan Radh watched his staff serve a single table.

At lunchtime Saturday — two years and a day since the World Health Organization declared the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — Radh, the co-owner of Indian restaurant Kochin Kitchen, said he has to rebuild his business from the ground up.

"Now, we are like in an opening stage," Radh said. "We've started building and building and building. That's [what] we did when we opened in 2015."

Several small businesses in Ottawa told CBC News that two full years in a pandemic have significantly reshaped the way they do things.

In that period, Ottawa restaurants were closed a total of 323 days, nearly one day closed for each day open. The city spent a total of 164 days in full lockdown, during which time people weren't allowed to see any contacts outside their home.

Another 160 days were spent with a provincial vaccine passport in place, before it was lifted at the start of March.

These key numbers, said Ottawa business advocate Michael Wood, have changed the way small businesses operate and likely foretell a "much more conservative approach to growth."

"We have seen people downsize ... We have seen people revert online," Wood said.

"If [businesses] go under, well, then people are going to lose their homes and their assets. So, you know, this only exacerbated the need to change."

As a buffet-style eatery, The Green Door Restaurant faced especially stringent public health measures. (Submitted)

'Starting from zero'

As a buffet-style eatery, The Green Door Restaurant in Old Ottawa East was subject to more public health restrictions than those that offered table service.

That meant even when the restaurant was open, it was far from operating at full capacity, said owner Ross Farmer.

"There were many months ... where it was really just holding it together for the employees," Farmer said. "It was more just making what we can, to be able to employ the people that we can."

Although restaurants were closed for particularly long stretches, other small businesses were also sidelined by the length of the full lockdowns.

"In a lot of ways, it feels like we're starting from zero," said Aaron Kurtzer, manager of the downtown Comic Book Shoppe on Bank Street. "In some cases, less than zero."

Online stores take off

Wood said moving forward, small businesses are likely to shift further toward online sales, embrace co-working spaces, and start planning for a broader range of future crises.

Sam Whittle, owner of downtown sex shop Venus Envy, said her online sales boomed early in the pandemic.

Although her online business has since dropped off, Whittle said the web store is here to stay — even as their in-person workshops returned earlier this month.

"People were so overjoyed to be there," Whittle said. "There's an energy, there's a feedback you get from in-person events — I find anyway — you don't get online."

With files from Sara Frizzell