WRITTEN BY SHAWNA O’NEILL
Our downtown, non-essential storefronts may look quiet without their usual bustle of shoppers. But there’s plenty of busy bees that are working hard behind the scenes.
With Ontario currently in its third COVID-19 lockdown since spring of 2020, the curbside pick-up/take-out model has become a new normal for many business owners in the downtown BIA. Each business has faced unique challenges and implemented different tactics over the last year, with some expanding their online presence, and others adding personal delivery options.
For Schnitzel’s European Flavours, little adjustments have been made in the background, like owners personally delivering meals now, in new, higher quality recyclable dishes.
“A little bit goes a long way,” explained co-owner Justine Viray-Levac. “(Our food) is meant to be served in the dining room, so we need to make sure the quality is still the exact same.”
“Our dining room is just a ghost town now; it’s a different environment,” she added, as Schnitzel’s is largely known for its in-person experience, along with its delicious menu. “It’s new territory for us, but we’re doing our best to give the community what we’re known for.”
The ‘lockdown’ day-to-day includes forecasting weekly sales based on the weather and holidays, according to Justine. To eliminate food waste, Schnitzel’s has condensed their take-out menu. If there’s a holiday happening, it’s likely that Schnitzel’s will offer a special too. The dough for about 80 to 100 pizzas still needs to be rolled daily, which comprises a large part of the behind the scenes production.
Justine arrives to the restaurant around 3 p.m., which is when orders start coming in online and over the phone. After safely chatting with a small kitchen staff, she will go to the bar side of the restaurant, switch on the lights and computer, and wait to momentarily greet hungry mask-wearers who are grabbing their grub.
Food is prepared right up until the moment customers are set to arrive, so it’s as fresh as possible. Everything is sanitized after an order is picked up.
“Any small touches we can do…like for a birthday, we add a sparkler,” said Justine, who dearly misses seeing customers.
Across the street at Kid’s Korner, staff members have more or less become personal shoppers to locals. Co-owner Kevin Ouderkirk said that they didn’t halt operations a single day during the pandemic, always hustling behind the scenes.
“We are really adaptable,” he said. “The (staff) are really really working hard. It’s a lot of work when you’re dealing with back and forth (online communication with customers). There’s a lot more involved in a sale now than usual.”
Kevin said that during 2020, a majority of sales were made using Facebook messenger and phone communication. A lot of customers would provide an ideal price range and description of the person the item would be purchased for. Staff would then use their knowledge and imagination to recommend the best products, send photos, and prepare everything for pick-up or delivery.
“Before, most people would come into the shop themselves (and browse). Now, you’re with them all the way (through the sale),” said Kevin, who has also taken it upon himself to deliver some orders. “But there’s tons of people who want to buy from a small (business), a lot who went out of their way to.”
In 2021, Kid’s Korner updated their website to display their products, which has taken some of the guesswork out of sales according to Kevin. He said that customers can safely pay in-person or e-transfer, and more than ever locals are purchasing 1,000 piece puzzles.
“Stuck inside, you can sit around with everyone and do a board game or puzzle,” he said.
Although they are still working tirelessly behind the scenes, small business owners are anxiously anticipating working alongside staff and customer in-person soon.