COVID-19 gutted these storefronts and they'll never be the same

Small businesses in Ottawa say the changes they've made to keep afloat during COVID-19 will outlive the pandemic.

From sporting goods to clothing, owners say new business models will outlive COVID-19

The e-commerce team at Kunstadt Sports has grown from two to around 15 people. 'We don't see that ever shrinking,' says Monica Kunstadt. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Small businesses had to find creative ways to adapt their business models to stay afloat during COVID-19, but many say the changes will be permanent.

For Ottawa sporting goods store Kunstadt Sports, the pandemic sped up its shift from brick- and-mortar to online sales. With new staffing in place, it has no plans to revert back.

Monica Kunstadt, financial controller at Kunstadt, says its e-commerce team grew from two to upwards of 15 people.

"We don't see that ever shrinking," she said.

The company has now committed to a 10-year lease on a 3,200-square-foot warehouse in Carleton Place where it will keep orders before shipping. But that doesn't mean there's no place for physical storefronts in the new model.

Kunstadt says a third of the company's business remains brick-and-mortar, which she describes as "100 per cent still needed" at its three locations. 

"Sometimes change pushes us outside of our comfort zones. I don't think we can go back. We've all evolved in ways that will never be the same," said Kunstadt.

Why the pandemic has changed the way this Ottawa entrepreneur operates

1 year ago
Duration 1:21
Fashion designer Stacey Martin says the combined blows of the pandemic and racial injustice in 2020 spurred her to change the way she does business, prioritizing online sales over brick-and-mortar retail.

'I was gutted,' says designer

For Stacey Martin, 2020 was a shock to the system, forcing the closure of her ByWard Market women's clothing boutique. 

"I was gutted," said the fashion designer who started KANIA Couture in 2003 while still a dancer on Broadway.

"Your business is your baby. All the hard work ... has come to zero, and you don't have any control," said Martin.

"You're dug in this hole and you cannot get out," said Martin. "The only real way to survive is to pivot."

The pandemic forced Ottawa fashion designer and entrepreneur Stacey Martin to regroup and rebrand. Her goal is to transition to 70 per cent online sales. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Martin decided to rebrand as Stacey Martin Lifestyle, with an emphasis on online sales.

But she struggled to bankroll the change, which she says is an obstacle for Black female entrepreneurs seeking venture capital funding.

"The racial inequalities? The store closing? It was just like being hit over and over again," said Martin, who admits she flirted with throwing in the towel. "But that's not who I am."

Instead, she decided to raise her own venture capital through equity crowdfunding, and plans to use the proceeds to increase production, inventory and marketing, with a goal of reaching 70 per cent online sales.

Martin decided to raise her own venture capital through equity crowdfunding. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

"That is the way of the world. This is really the way that we're going to be connecting in the future after COVID is over," she said.

Martin still intends to keep her 500-square-foot storefront on York Street as a showroom and design studio. Meantime, a larger storage area in the same building will act as a fulfilment centre for online shoppers.

A culinary business goes online

Prior to COVID-19, The Urban Element's food educators and chefs offered classes, catering and team-building events at its culinary venue in a renovated fire station in Hintonburg.

"People were shoulder to shoulder with the chefs," said co-owner Carley Schelck.

We're getting small so we can get big again.- Carley Schelck

Though the company had considered adding virtual classes in the past, COVID-19 forced its hand. It has since given up that prime real estate on Parkdale Avenue, opting for online classes only.

"That was a hard decision," said Schelck. "I've heard clients say, 'there's nothing better than … having a chef look over your shoulder and help you properly sear that scallop.'"

Carley Schelck of The Urban Element says COVID-19 obliged the business to shift online, and give up their high-visibility, former fire hall venue on Parkdale Avenue. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Now, recipe kits are sent to clients, who connect virtually with instructors, albeit in real time.

Schelck plans to continue offering online courses post-pandemic. Down the road, she hopes to return to a physical kitchen, though likely in a smaller location.

"We're looking at things differently now," said Schelck. "We're getting small so we can get big again."

One door closes, another opens

Last spring, an old adage came true for Craig Hall, co-owner of Equator Coffee Roasters.

"When we had to shut the front door of the café in March, we were able to open the drive-thru," said the entrepreneur from Almonte, Ont. "It couldn't have been better timing."

In fact, the wheels were in motion long before the pandemic, as a fix to the annual post-Christmas slowdown in coffee sales.

"Every year we noticed a big drop in sales in January and February," said Hall, who decided to create an online ordering platform for the cafe when the pandemic hit — both changes he sees outliving the pandemic.

Craig Hall demonstrates the drive-thru at Equator Coffee Roasters in Almonte, Ont. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

"We're focusing more on online sales and … where we think the business will be more reliable in the future," he explained, adding that unreliability is behind the company's decision to close its location in the National Arts Centre.

Still, Hall finds himself eyeing 'for lease' signs downtown.

"There are some potentially good sites for a cafe. But I don't think the landlords have figured it out that they can't charge what they did before."


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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