As public servants continue their second week of striking, many Ottawa businesses near picket lines have been flooded with restaurant patrons, coffee drinkers and some just wanting to sit down and take a break.
This unexpected increase in clientele has offered a much-needed boost to many business owners after a few tough years. Pandemic restrictions that began in 2020 left area shops – big and small – in a constant state of flux. Just as capacity limits were lifting in restaurants, the trucker convoy protests descended upon the downtown core in February last year, forcing many businesses to shut down altogether.
“It was one blow after another,” said Jason Komendat, owner of bike shop and café Retro-Rides on Sparks Street.
Mr. Komendat said Thursday if he had to guess, his daily sales are up by 500 per cent every day that the strikers have been downtown. “The strike is the best thing that’s ever happened to the café,” he said. “Nothing compares.”
Olga Shramko is the owner of Le Moulin de Provence on Metcalfe Street. She said there’s been a 25- to 30-per-cent increase in business because of the morning rush for coffee and pastries that comes with having the strikers in town. “We’re double busy,” she said with a laugh. “It starts much earlier, so, by 7:30 a.m. we already have a line in here.”
There were no major developments in the labour dispute as of Thursday evening, with both sides making little progress in negotiations. The key issues are the rate of pay increases and whether policies for public servants working from home will be included in a new collective agreement.
Treasury Board president Mona Fortier announced in December that public servants would be required to work in the office two or three days a week as of March, 2023. Ms. Fortier has said determining the location of work is a management right, while the Public Service Alliance of Canada says the terms of working from home should be negotiated with the union and included in any deal.
Ms. Fortier told reporters Thursday that negotiations are continuing.
“We’re at the table and trying to find creative solutions to get to a deal,” she said.
About 155,000 public servants are affected by the strike. About 47,000 of those union members have been deemed essential and continue to work.
Andrew Bassett is the owner of Little Victories Coffee Roasters, an independent specialty coffee roaster on Elgin Street. Between eight and nine in the morning, Mr. Bassett said the coffee shop is taking in around $600 to $700 an hour, which is “massive for a coffee shop that sells four-dollar coffees.”
Mr. Bassett compared the café's performance with its location in the city’s Glebe neighbourhood, about two kilometres south of Parliament and the picket lines. On Thursday morning, the Glebe café made 150 sales, while the Elgin location made 257 transactions during the same time. Overall, Mr. Bassett said his downtown café has at least seen a 10-per-cent increase in business since strikers came in droves to picket on Parliament Hill and outside federal buildings.
Steve Chandler is the general manager of Nate’s Deli on Sparks Street. He said he’s had to bring in extra staff to meet the increased demand around lunchtime. “The dollar is nice, but it’s a lot more work,” he said. “We’re running our butts off.”
Mr. Chandler said he’s grateful for the increase in customers, but he fears the outcome of the strike.
“If it goes through and they’re allowed to work from home, it could kill the downtown core,” Mr. Chandler said.
Mr. Komendat said he was so busy at his bike shop that he had to make breakfast sandwiches a day ahead to meet Friday morning’s expected demand. Just after noon, many of his display cases had a “sold out” sign taped over them.
While grateful for the business, Mr. Komendat said he thinks the downtown business core should be using this opportunity to find ways to expand their clientele and rely less on office workers. He said he walked to Parliament Hill every day the strikers were there, talking to people and telling them about his business. Mr. Komendat said he now has regular customers who come visit the store whenever they’re in the area.
“People that I’ve spoken to have come in, brought their bikes for a tune-up, had a coffee,” he said. “I’m creating a community.”
Mr. Komendat said he hopes that sense of community will encourage people to come back and support him after the strike is over.
“We’re all trying to look at ways to get people back into these spaces, and it might not necessarily be that nine-to-five crowd,” said Kevin McHale, the executive director of the Sparks Street BIA. “I don’t think focusing on them is the right tactic. We have to get people to identify the downtown core as a great place to visit and play.”