They opened new businesses, then COVID-19 hit – how some have survived

Alicja Siekierska
·4-min read
They opened new businesses, then COVID-19 hit – how some have survived

Pisac Peruvian Bistro, a restaurant located in Toronto’s Summerhill neighbourhood, was just five weeks old when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and it was forced to close its doors to the public.

“The last year has been a rollercoaster,” Pisac founder and chef Renzo Galleno said in an interview.

“If I had known what was going to happen, I probably wouldn’t have opened up a restaurant. It’s been quite a learning experience.”

When Pisac initially opened last February, Galleno had no plans to partner with third-party food delivery apps and offer takeout. Today, it’s the reason his restaurant has been able to operate through the last year, a period marked by lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and uncertainty.

Pisac is just one of many businesses that had its opening coincide with the start of an unprecedented pandemic that shut down the economy and forced many to close their doors temporarily or shutter permanently. New businesses like Pisac faced additional challenges, particularly in the early days of COVID-19, as they had little to no time to build awareness and a loyal customer base.

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“It was quite challenging,” Galleno said. The first weeks of the initial lockdowns in Toronto featured Galleno and his son handling all the prepping and cooking, as well as setting up and working with delivery companies.

The challenges brought on by COVID-19 for new businesses have been exacerbated by the fact that many have been unable to qualify for federal government support programs, says Dan Kelly, the head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). While there have been many programs introduced to help small businesses over the last year, some of the requirements – such as year-over-year revenue or 2019 tax returns – have meant some companies have not been able to qualify.

“Zero progress has been made on this front,” Kelly said. “And these programs would make an enormous difference… When you have the disqualification from the subsidy programs with the extended lockdowns in lots of parts of Canada, it’s a recipe for disaster.”

How some businesses have thrived

Still, some businesses like Pisac have managed to survive, despite all the challenges of the past year. For some companies, the pandemic has even provided growth opportunities.

Shannon Whelan was working as a professional dancer when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In-person classes were put on hold and recitals were cancelled, leaving her to focus more on what had been a side-hustle floral business, Euclid Farms. At the time, her business consisted of growing flowers in her yard – and the gardens of several neighbours – in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods neighbourhood.

“I had a very intense full-time job, so it was very much a part-time hobby,” Whelan said.

“But as soon as the lockdown happened and I stopped teaching, I decided that maybe this was the time to push Euclid Farms.”

It wasn’t long before word spread and demand ramped up, leaving Whelan to consider moving Euclid Farms’ operations from her dirt-covered living room to a more permanent storefront. When a commercial space in the trendy Queen West area opened up – at a discount, thanks to COVID-19 – Whelan decided to fully commit to Euclid Farms. The storefront opened on Thanksgiving weekend, and business is booming, despite intermittent shutdowns that mean it has been open to the public for less than two month all told. In fact, Whelan is considering opening a second location.

“When it’s time to reopen and the world is getting back to normal, we’re going to look for a separate, larger space,” she said.

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James Sharman, the founder and owner of Sharman’s Proper Pies, has also expanded his business in the midst of the pandemic. Sharman was gearing up to open the company's first storefront in Toronto, complete with a commercial kitchen, when the pandemic hit.

“We were panicking trying to get things finished in time,” he said. While e-commerce was always part of Sharman's plan, when lockdowns began he pivoted to offering a subscription option, a move that has proven very popular amid customers tired of cooking from home.

“The pivot was essential for us,” he said. Since then, business has been going so well that Sharman's Proper Pies opened its second location in Toronto this past month. “All things considered, we’ve been extremely fortunate.”

According to the CFIB, 55 per cent of business owners have said their business model has changed through the pandemic and will permanently change after COVID-19.

Still, those businesses that thrived through the pandemic are the exception, not the rule, says Kelly. "That's not the group that's calling me every five minutes," he said.

"A business takes time to build. You assume you're going to be losing money to start, but you don't expect that you're going to have your doors closed and making zero revenue."

Alicja Siekierska is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow her on Twitter @alicjawithaj.

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