How some of P.E.I.'s oldest businesses are coping with COVID-19

CBC News checked in on some of the Island's most venerable businesses to see how they're coping. 

'If we can do 50 per cent we'll be lucky'

Purity Dairy in Charlottetown has lost sales at restaurants, schools and daycares but grocery-store sales of milk have somewhat offset the loss, says owner Tom Cullen. (Submitted by Purity Dairy )

P.E.I.'s oldest businesses have been through tough times before, including wars and economic downturns — but nothing like the COVID-19 pandemic.

It has been almost two months since non-essential businesses on P.E.I. were ordered by public health officials to close to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.  

CBC News checked in on some of the Island's most venerable businesses to see how they're coping. 

Purity Dairy, 1946

Tom Cullen's parents began processing milk in Charlottetown in 1946, shipping it from their mixed farm in Central Royalty on the outskirts of Charlottetown by the current airport.

Purity Dairy has run successfully through ups and downs over the years, but Cullen, who joined the business in 1977 after he graduated from university, says the COVID-19 crisis is "unprecedented." 

"We've never encountered anything like this," he said, adding "things could be much worse." 

For my business to survive this pandemic, it's either reopen very soon or shut the doors permanently.— Carol Peters

Purity's sales are down about 10 per cent, mostly because restaurants, schools and child-care centres closed, the latter two taking school lunchtime milk programs with them. Some lost sales have been offset with grocery-store sales, Cullen said, but not enough. However Purity has only had to lay off one of 20 staff. 

Purity is eligible for some of the programs governments have made available and has applied, Cullen said.

What's in the future? Cullen said he is unsure how comfortable people will be partaking in daily life until a vaccine becomes available. 

"I'm optimistic — entrepreneurs are by nature optimistic," he said. "We need to be reminded now more than ever, buying local is important." 

Sheen's For Shoes, 1937

Sheen's For Shoes owner Carol Peters says the business opened in Summerside in 1939 and weathered crises like the Second World War before, but COVID is the toughest challenge yet. (Submitted by Sheen's For Shoes)

Jerry Sheen began Sheen's for Shoes in Summerside in 1937, and his son Don took over in the 1970s.

"Times were different. Local downtown shopping was all there was," said Carol Peters, who bought the business 21 years ago. 

The store has survived the hardship of the Second World War, recessions, and the explosion of online shopping. It has now been closed for more than two months with only a handful of curbside sales.

Along with other retailers, public health officials will permit the store to open May 22, with strict protocols about cleaning, physical distancing and the number of people allowed in the store at once.

We will embrace it as we have embraced other obstacles in the past.— Carol Peters

"Our staff unfortunately were laid off with fear of what our future outcome would be," Peters said in an email to CBC. "Some staff do in fact have concerns about their health and safety with reopening as I also do, but in order for my business to survive this pandemic, it's either reopen very soon or shut the doors permanently.

"We are fortunate being an 83-year-old business in the community as we have a strong, loyal customer base," she said. 

At the same time, she said Sheen's does rely on summer tourists for a big chunk of sales, and P.E.I.'s borders being closed to visitors will hurt considerably. She is optimistic Islanders will make the extra effort to support local business to jump start the local economy.

As for the future, Peters said she's hoping the pandemic will be over soon and she will be able to retire, knowing the business will continue. 

"We will embrace it as we have embraced other obstacles in the past such as, the bridge to the mainland which allowed easier access for mainland shopping, having to compete with the big-box stores, provincial taxation of clothing and footwear, online shopping, which is probably our biggest modern competition," she said. 

Shaw's Hotel, 1860

Robbie Shaw says he hopes to open this summer, but he is still not sure. (Submitted by Robbie Shaw)

Shaw's Hotel is one of the longest-running businesses on P.E.I. The Shaws settled on the land in Brackley Beach in 1793 and started the hotel in 1860. 

Current owner Robbie Shaw took over the family business 41 years ago. He's been managing a steady stream of cancellations the last few months that he said turned into a "tidal wave" last week with the cancellation of the Cavendish Beach Musical Festival, plus a big wedding. 

Mondays are the worst, he said, rattling off a long list of emails he received from people who decided over the weekend to cancel their bookings and ask for the return of their deposits. 

Usually on the May long weekend, the cottages at the resort would be 80 to 90 per cent full — this year, it's looking like it will be at less than 10 per cent capacity, he said. 

Shaw is wondering out loud if there's any point in opening. Usually this time of year he'd have deposits he'd use for cash flow to get the resort up and running until the summer got into full swing. Now, they've come up with a plan to sell gift certificates to replace that money. 

Do I want to incur more debt? I've been in debt most of my life.— Robbie Shaw

"If we can do 50 per cent we'll be lucky," Shaw said. "I think I'm planning for about 40 per cent, and that's like throwing a dart ... blindfolded." 

His tentative plan now is to open for Islanders and provide them with lower than usual prices. After all, Shaw's has seen some families and groups return for decades, and Islanders had little chance to experience the resort at its summer peak. Locals are "potential ambassadors for us," Shaw noted.

The advantage of being well-established is that Shaw's has a loyal clientele that loves to return — even if they can't this year, they might return next year. The disadvantage is that the resort has several older buildings that are expensive to maintain. 

"That dollar clock is ticking as it normally would," Shaw said. Putting repairs off a year could mean paying even more next year. But he'd need to borrow the money to do it now. 

"Do I want to incur more debt? I've been in debt most of my life," Shaw said, adding deferring loan payments only prolongs the pain. He said government relief programs haven't included much for tourism businesses like his. 

He said he's a "wee bit more optimistic" than he was a week ago, and will decide in the next six weeks whether or not to close for the season. 

Foley's Transfer, 1946 

Foley's is hoping to expand under its new owners to offer home deliveries. (Isabella Zavarise/CBC)

Foley's Transfer was started by Joe Foley in 1946 with just his pickup truck, and has been moving Islanders for almost 75 years. 

The pandemic finds Foley's at a major crossroads — this week the ink dried on a deal made pre-COVID that sees Foley's sold to AMJ Campbell. AMJ Campbell itself has been in business since 1934, and is "the largest moving company in Canada," according to operations manager Donnie Perry.

Is anybody going to want to be working?— Donnie Perry

Perry said normally in January the company lays off its staff of 10 to 12 movers and they collect employment insurance. When there is work, they are called in and do it, and things normally start to pick up in March. But this spring, he said business has simply stayed flat.

"People are staying home, working from home," Perry said. "Nobody's really going anywhere." 

The company's business is down 60 to 70 per cent, he said. 

"It's really taken a big hit," Perry said. However, he said Foley's is well off compared to a lot of businesses. They are well-known for quality service and when there is work, Islanders often call on them. And now they have the power of a large company behind them.

Even though business is down, AMJ Campbell has plans to expand Foley's to do more home deliveries of online purchases, and is beginning to hire and train new staff — or at least try to.

"That's probably the most scary part — is anybody going to want to be working?" Perry mused. He was poised to hire someone last week, but said when he offered the job, the applicant told him he had received money from a federal COVID-19 relief program, and turned it down.

Still, Perry said the company is staying "positive what could happen." 

More from CBC P.E.I.


Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a bachelor of journalism (honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email


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