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Thursday, October 6, 2022
Businesses happy to reopen, but lockdown was tough

Vicky Qiao
Special to The Lake Report

The past few months have been tough on Niagara-on-the-Lake businesses, but with NOTL's move to grey-lockdown status this week, more businesses can reopen at 25 per cent capacity.

For some small operations, like Sono’s Cafe in Virgil, the second lockdown has been extremely difficult.

At first, the Virgil cafe/diner was able to maintain 30 to 40 per cent of regular sales from drive-thru and take-out. But sales fell to 5 per cent during the second lockdown, said owner Mahmoud Sono.

Sono said he gave the cafe a full revamp in the fall to ensure a safe dining environment, including plastic barriers to separate tables.

“As soon as we were preparing to open more … we shut down again,” he said.

Sono and his wife opened the cafe for three hours on Tuesday after the Family Day weekend, but not one customer or order came in.

Lockdown aside, competition from big fast-food chains makes it even harder for small cafes, even one that has been open for more than 25 years, he said.

“We have an award for the best coffee in town," Sono said, but franchise operations make competition fierce.

“They try to kill the small businesses when they do one-month free coffee, $1 any size of coffee. Tim Hortons and McDonald’s compete with each other, and I'm the only one dying from it.”

Before COVID, the cafe was able to survive by adding more variety to its menu and maintaining high-quality food, but the pandemic has made it impossible to compete.

“We're gonna hang on here… we’re happy for the rent subsidy and the wage subsidy … so that's what keeps us on our feet,” Sono said.

For Silversmith Brewery, business collaborations have been a way to get through the pandemic challenges.

“We've been able to work something out with some of our partners in and around the area,” said Kyle Getty, the president of Silversmith, located in a 150-year-old former church on Niagara Stone Road.

Besides doing co-promotions with area wineries, Getty said they’ve even partnered with a brewery in British Columbia for a collaborative beer, to share their impact and “think outside of the box.”

Despite the support and collaboration within the NOTL community, Getty said revenue has been down by 80 to 85 per cent.

“There's a lot of companies that won't come out of this from what we're hearing in the industry … so we're fortunate, but if we go into another lockdown, who knows what will happen?"

Under the current grey-lockdown status, restaurants are still only allowed to open for take-out and the region is expected to remain in lockdown for at least two more weeks.

Most retailers have been allowed to reopen with a limited capacity and Bloom & Co. in St. Davids is one of the lucky ones.

“We kind of scrambled last week to get everything ready… but this week we're all ready to go. This is our first day back, so the store is cleaned and reorganized and shuffled around a bit,” said Nataschia Wielink, co-owner of the travel-inspired lifestyle boutique.

They originally opened the shop in the anticipation of guests stopping by while visiting wineries in the region, said Wielink. But then the pandemic hit.

“Honestly, we wouldn't have gotten through this pandemic without our local support, which has just been over-the top amazing. I can't even put into words how special that has been that they continue to pop by and they want to see us thrive,” she said.

"We look forward to hosting tourists back when that time comes, but we certainly don't want to rush into that.”

Sarah Lavigne's Charcuterie Board Workshop hasn't been so lucky.

“We’re completely shut down at the moment," Lavigne said. "That's been tough but we are anxiously awaiting reopening and we're planning diligently to have our staff in place."

Lavigne said Valentine’s Day would have been one of the biggest days of the year for her business.

“We’re usually sold out months in advance. So we’re very sad to lose our Valentine’s. We usually run like five workshops in Niagara on that.” 

Lavigne ran her workshops at Jackson-Triggs Estate Winery throughout the summer and saw thousands of participants, mostly couples or girlfriend groups creating live-edge wood charcuterie boards.

“We certainly have lots of guidelines in place to keep everyone kind of in their bubbles moving along in the space. It's difficult but everyone seems to be very understanding because they're so excited to be out doing something,” she said.

“We’ve just had to pivot a lot.”