Small businesses shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic are finding innovative ways to operate behind closed doors so they can keep staff working, customers engaged and bring in some revenue amid brutal economic conditions.
Some of the adaptations include live streaming of fitness classes, online health consultations, preordered restaurant meals and home delivery of everything from beer to books.
For many entrepreneurs, the changes aren’t just about business survival, but also keeping themselves and their employees busy and motivated during the coronavirus crisis.
Owners of Say Mercy!, a new Italian barbecue-themed restaurant in Vancouver, started offering affordable off-menu preorder meals for takeout on March 18, two days after closing because of the crisis. The meals, which include vegetable stew, barbecue Bolognese, as well as vegetarian and meat lasagnas, come in 500-millilitre containers and cost $5 to $10.
Customers can also buy “suspended stew,” a $5 meal that gets donated to people in need. A $2 donation to the Vancouver Food Bank is added to each order at checkout.
“We may have closed our shutters, but it’s nice to know we are still impacting the community,” says Antonio Cayonne, operations manager and partner of Collective Hospitality, which owns Say Mercy! and the Mackenzie Room restaurant in Vancouver.
Customers can purchase the Say Mercy! meals online between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday, then pick them up between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. that day. The transaction is entirely virtual and pickups are made at a safe distance at the back of the restaurant.
“We take social distancing very seriously, keeping ourselves as far from people as possible while trying to stay as connected as possible,” says Andrew Jameson, director and founder of Collective Hospitality. “This is our new business model for the foreseeable future.”
It’s also a way to avoid shutting down Say Mercy! entirely after opening just eight weeks ago.
“I’m hoping we can keep some cash flow coming in, spirits high and perhaps it will lead to other opportunities,” says Mr. Jameson, who thinks other restaurants should follow suit. “Creating something positive in a difficult time is rewarding in its own right."
Since closing its doors on March 16, the Hustle fitness studio in Vancouver has been offering free classes on Instagram and YouTube.
Co-owner Brent Price says the move helps keep customers fit and engaged and some of its coaches employed. Some clients were also willing to continue paying their membership fees for the online classes, but the owners didn’t feel that was right. Memberships have been suspended until the business reopens.
“Right now, we want to give back to the community,” Mr. Price says. “Nobody should have to pay because money is tight for everyone, but we want to provide something for people to stay active.”
The owners also plan to produce a series of workout videos and set it up as a subscription-based business. The launch depends on how long the shutdown continues. “We can only sustain the business for a certain amount of time [without steady revenue]," Mr. Price says.
He also plans to take some video production and online-marketing courses. “Now, I have the opportunity to invest the time ... and potentially save my business money down the road,” Mr. Price says.
Elite Vision Therapy Centre in Etobicoke, Ont. plans to offer online therapy sessions for its patients starting on Monday, after the clinic closed last week for everything except emergencies.
Owner Angela Peddle, an optometrist specializing in vision therapy and rehabilitation, says her team will offer non-emergency patients the same 45-minute sessions they do in the clinic, but over a live video chat. The sessions will help patients keep up their treatments.
“With the office shut down, we’ll see a regression in progress unless they’re fully healed,” Dr. Peddle says. “We’ll still have tailored one-on-one therapy; it will just be from our homes or the clinic.”
Of the clinic’s 150 patients, she estimates about one-third to a half will participate, “with hopes for more as the program becomes more robust and our therapists become more adept at this new method,” Dr. Peddle says.
The service also gives her comfort. “The responsibility is on us to keep the patients healing and progressing. I can’t sleep at night if 150 patients go down the tube,” she says.
Last week, Toronto-based Pawzy Inc. shifted its business model from an online veterinary-clinic finder to a telehealth service for vets, supporting the social-distancing movement for pet owners during the coronavirus crisis.
Pawzy founder and chief executive Kerri-Lynn McAllister says vet clinics could close during the pandemic, and she wanted to provide pet owners with an alternative if their animals become ill.
“We moved quickly and got the Pawzy telehealth software up and running over the last week, and we are in discussions with clinics right now to start implementing,” Ms. McAllister says.
She says three Toronto clinics have signed up to offer the video and software application service in the first week.