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The Charles sisters Donna, Reneé and Nicky opened SugarKane a year ago and quickly built up a reputation for their creative take on Caribbean and Cajan cuisine. The restaurant is coping with the pandemic by offering take out and delivery, something they had never done before.SUPPLIED

When SugarKane opened in Toronto’s Danforth neighbourhood a year ago, the restaurant soon became a local favourite. Its menu, designed by owners Nicky Charles and her sisters, Reneé and Donna, tapped into the Caribbean and Cajun flavours they grew up with, thanks to their Trinidad-born parents. The eatery’s fusion approach to cuisine struck a chord with customers. “We were booked two weeks in advance for tables during the weekends,” recalls Nicky. “And we were voted as one of the top restaurants on the Danforth. Then COVID-19 hit.”

Like many small businesses across Canada, SugarKane had to close its doors in March at the peak of the pandemic. It faced an uncertain future and needed to find a way to navigate through the crisis. “It was horrible,” says Nicky. “We didn’t know if we would survive. We had bills coming in and no way to pay them. We decided to offer takeout and delivery – something we hadn’t done before.”

Business was slow at first, but word spread quickly. New and returning customers were happy to be able to order best-selling dishes like jerk chicken fettucine and chicken and waffle sliders. “Our customer support was overwhelming,” explains Nicky. “They helped us by adding tips to their bills, telling friends and posting photos of their food on social media. I think our customers realized how much we needed them and they really got behind us, and Amex Canada reached out to support as well through their Shop Small program. If we can keep up this momentum, we can stay open and get through to the end of COVID-19.”

As the impact of the pandemic continues to ripple through the Canadian economy, where and how consumers spend their dollars has never been more important to small businesses. It can make the difference in whether they stay open or close permanently. Which is something that Amex Canada understands well. In response, it launched its national #ShopSmall campaign in Canada on June 24th.

Small businesses, like SugarKane, were hit hard because of the COVID-19 lockdown. New research, conducted by Amex, reveals that 53 per cent of small businesses are concerned about making it through to 2021 and 51 per cent say they need a sharp recovery to remain viable. Buying direct from local business owners can make a difference in whether their businesses survive.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our communities and across the country they need our support now more than ever,” says Kerri-Ann Santaguida, Vice President and General Manager, Global Merchant and Network Services, American Express Canada. “At Amex, we have an important role to play in encouraging our own Cardmembers and all Canadians to get out there and show up for small businesses - no matter how they pay.”

The national initiative is backed by the largest-ever Cardmember offer, aimed at driving spend to local businesses. Eligible American Express Cardmembers can earn $5 in statement credits when they spend at least $10, at up to 10 different qualifying small businesses, giving them the opportunity to earn up to $50 in statement credits. With an updated Shop Small Map it’s easier than ever for Canadians to find local businesses.

“Our goal with the Shop Small promotion is to have Cardmembers show up for small businesses as much as possible,” says Santaguida. “We want them to support multiple local businesses, which is why we’ve made it possible to earn the credit 10 times by shopping at 10 different businesses – online, curbside or in-store.”

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Small businesses were hit especially hard by the pandemic, points out Brent Barr, a lecturer and parttime professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Business. “Many had to shutter completely,” he says. “Larger companies were able to keep operating since many already had the capacity to offer their products for sale online and allow staff to work at home.”

Businesses with fewer than 100 employees make up more than 40 per cent of the country’s GDP, according to Stats Canada. According to new research, Small Business Recovery, conducted by Amex, 53 per cent of small businesses are concerned about making it through to 2021 and 51 per cent say they need a sharp recovery for their businesses to remain viable. That data underscores the crucial role consumers can make in sustaining their favourite shops, restaurants and service providers through the crisis.

“Every single sale is life-altering to these small businesses,” says Barr. “If everyone bought just one more meal or one more gift from a local business, it could mean the difference in whether they survive or not. I recommend that Canadians buy direct from local business owners you know. They’ll truly appreciate it.”

That’s certainly true when it comes to SugarKane. “We’ve been so overwhelmed by customer support during this very scary time,” says Nicky. “We’ve invested our heart and soul in our business, along with our time and money. With the encouragement from our clientele, we have real hope we’ll climb out of this hole.”


Six ways you can help support small businesses

  • Spend your money on restaurants, retailers and service providers in your immediate local area.
  • Post positive reviews on online.
  • Buy gift cards for yourself and for friends. Their purchase helps local businesses with their cash flow.
  • Add a tip to your bill. From wait staff to hair stylists and delivery people, everyone is appreciative of a little extra cash these days.
  • Buy local online. Many small businesses have pivoted to e-commerce during COVID-19. If you can’t get to them in person, support your local community by making purchases online.
  • Use your registered Amex Card to get a $5 credit when you spend at least $10 at up to 10 different participating small businesses until Sept. 13th. For more details and full terms, visit americanexpress.ca/shopsmall.

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