Skip to main content

Ottawa-based entrepreneur Chris McDonald established West Lake Market, an online grocery store, built a website and updated his insurance in two weeks, shortly after the pandemic was declared.supplied

In the midst of chaos, Chris McDonald had an epiphany. During his first trip for groceries at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he identified a new business opportunity.

“I saw crazy line-ups at the store. Then I went home to order groceries online and they were backlogged for two weeks,” says McDonald. “I looked at my wife and said, ‘This is not going away anytime soon. Everyone is starting to fall short on groceries and there will probably be some kind of panic.’”

McDonald also realized that people were anxious about even going into the grocery store. “They didn’t want to wait in long line-ups. They wanted to be able to order online, pick up their order in their car and drive away, all without having to interact with anyone.”

Meanwhile, the restaurant industry was closing down, he says, so groceries normally going there were now available. The missing link was getting them from the supplier to the public.

“This was a big problem that needed a solution.”

So, McDonald put his Ottawa-based home renovations business, which he had just launched in January, on hold and started an online grocery store, West Lake Market.

To help his community get curbside access to groceries, he reached out to a local grocery supply company and initially operated the business out of his home.

The business went live on March 27. “It was a whirlwind. In two weeks, I built a website, formed a company, became incorporated, updated my insurance and started an e-commerce business,” he says.

Soon McDonald’s house ran out of fridge and freezer space, so he contacted nearby golf courses to see if he could store goods there instead. “Since they weren’t running, I thought they would have some unused space and would be looking for an additional revenue stream,” he says.

This operational shift not only helped support several golf clubs in the Ottawa area, but also helped reduce the liability of customers coming to his personal residence.

“Large parking lots at golf clubs make it very easy for curbside pickup and drop-off. And the food is restaurant quality, so we have very happy customers,” he says. “We’ve evolved our product offerings based on customer requests but it’s mostly large quantities of meat, vegetables, flour and yeast.”

McDonald is still operating – and doing well, he says. “Like any start-up business the biggest challenges are in marketing and getting the word out. Repeat orders aren’t a problem.”

When he first launched his business, McDonald says he knew he needed to update his insurance. “I was initially running this new company out of my home, so I had all sorts of questions regarding liability,” he recalls.

He contacted his insurance broker to determine what coverage he might need. “With a renovations business, my risks were more obvious. Maybe you hurt yourself while repairing something, or you hit a water pipe,” he says.

“Online groceries and curbside pickup was completely new to me, so together we worked through a lot of what-if scenarios.”

According to Marie Harris, commercial lines vice president at Smith Petrie Carr & Scott Insurance Brokers, McDonald’s Ottawa-based insurance broker, it’s important for any business owner contemplating an operational change to speak with their insurance broker.

“We can help you navigate change by assessing new exposures and providing different coverage options,” she explains. “Risks are accepted by insurers based on the information you provide when your policy is first written. If that changes, you could have coverage gaps as a result of new exposures.”

By working closely with your insurance company, your insurance broker can help make sure you get those gaps covered.

Outside of operational changes, Harris recommends that risk assessment with your broker be an ongoing process, with at least two touchpoints per year.

Amanda Martin, underwriting manager at Northbridge Insurance, the company that insures McDonald, agrees and says that your insurance providers can be an essential part of your advisory team as your business evolves and you explore new growth opportunities.

Martin points out that as businesses adapt, they may open themselves up to all sorts of new risks they’ve never contemplated.

“During the pandemic, we’ve seen a large percentage of small businesses taking on temporary operations,” she says. “For example, we’ve seen a growing shift to online sales and businesses having more staff working remotely. Changes like these can open the door to increased cyber risk and potential concerns regarding privacy, malware and data breaches,” she says.

Pivoting businesses may also face increased liability when manufacturing new products, and expanded operations can come with increased potential for bodily injury or property damage.

“Having open lines of communication with your insurance partners ensures that we have a better understanding of your potential exposures and can make sure you have the right coverage in place,” Martin says. “We can also help you understand the terms and conditions of your policy so you can make sure any changes in your operations comply and that you’re covered in the event of a claim.”

As an entrepreneur who underwent the process of adopting a completely new business model, McDonald urges other small businesses to not be afraid of trying new things but to be sure to understand the implications.

“Across the country, you can see communities coming together to support local businesses,” he notes. “So, as a small business, it’s important to reach out for support and lean on your partners when you need it – especially when taking on new challenges.”

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.