The heat wasn’t the only thing many of us felt as the mercury hit 30 C over the weekend here in Waterloo Region. On physically distant walks, many of us felt a pang in our hearts as we saw our favourite patios sitting empty. No tables. No chairs. No sweating pitchers of beer.
Then on Monday, without warning, word came down from Queen’s Park that businesses like bars, restaurants, barbershops and salons could open on Friday, June 12.
But that doesn’t mean that all such businesses will reopen. Doing so in a way that’s safe for staff and customers takes a lot of planning. Even some local businesses that could have opened to customers in-store weeks ago are still sticking with delivery and curbside pickup.
“We had mixed feelings about it,” said Eddie Stannard, co-owner of The Green Room Barbershop. “We’re excited to do what we love again, we just want to do it safely.”
Stannard and business partner Dave Brown opened the barbershop on King Street across from Google in late December. Then COVID-19 hit and the team decided to close.
“We’ve been closed as long as we were open,” joked Stannard. “We closed a week premature of the legal closures. We thought it was in the best interest of our customers and staff.”
Stannard has been going into the shop over the last few weeks to water plants and check on the space. With the news on Monday, the team got together to figure out how they would approach reopening. “We haven’t found a lot of information on how to do it. We’re the last province to open barbershops and salons, so we’ve been looking at what friends in other provinces have been doing.”
Building and fostering a community is one of the drivers for Stannard and Brown. Before the pandemic, the space was filled with the sounds of scissors and trimmers during the day. By night, the barbershop transformed into a small concert space for some great punk shows with bands like Karloff, Life in Vacuum and Weight The Anchor. “We can’t do the shows again for a bit – but that was part of our business model to pay the cost of a larger space.”
The barbershop is reopening today, Friday, June 12. Changes have been made to make sure staff and customers are safe. Walk-ins will not be accepted for now. Beard and shaving services won’t be available, either. Most important, everyone will be required to wear a mask.
“That’s one thing we’re working on – finding ways to use clip ties on masks to the base of the neck so we can use trimmers.” They’ve also increased the space between each chair with a maximum of five customers in their space at one time.
Restaurants and bars have been offering curbside pickup and delivery since the first week of closures. In March, the province even changed the rules around alcohol sales to allow take-out beer, wine and liquor.
Even with these sales, restaurants and bars have been struggling to make enough to pay rent and staff. Employees have been hit particularly hard, with many being furloughed or laid off. With this week’s announcement of patios being able to reopen, there’s a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.
Abe Erb in Kitchener is opening its patio on the first day possible – June 12. “Our approach to opening is that we need money,” joked Tony Theodosiou, one of the brewery’s founders. “We’re trying not to lose any time and we want to be one of the first out of the gate. But we’re taking as much caution as possible and following the guidelines we’ve been given.”
To ensure proper physical distancing, patio capacities have to be reduced. The Abe Erb patio in the parking lot at the Tannery will have 20 seats available. Customers will need to make a reservation . “We want to do the things that keep our staff and our guests safe,” added Caitlin McWilliams, marketing director for Abe Erb.
For Abe Erb, good news travelled fast. After posting their reopening plans earlier in the week, they filled every reservation for the first weekend. The team is also looking at expanding its capacity. “We're looking at if we should go and extend the patio to maximize the potential,” said Theodosiou.
Just because you can reopen to customers doesn’t mean you need to. Local foodie haven Dana Shortt Gourmet is classified as a grocery store and has been allowed to have customers in the store since the beginning of the pandemic. “We’re legally allowed to be open, but we’re still closed to retail traffic,” said owner Dana Shortt of her store in Uptown Waterloo.
The store was already set up to sell online, so making the transition to delivery and curbside pickup was simple. “We have options for people who don’t want to cook, but don’t want take-out again either.”
While online orders work great, Shortt and her team also take phone orders from customers who aren’t comfortable ordering online. “We’ll take pictures of items that are in our warehouse so they can see what options there are,” added Shortt.
For Shortt, it’s important to operate as if they’re open to the public. “People are still concerned, customers and staff,” she said. “Some of our staff have worked here for five, seven years now. I felt if we opened too soon, we’d lose some good people.”
The store is already taking additional measures including temperature checks and additional sanitation procedures. When the space reopens, customers will see changes including Plexiglas barriers, masks or face shields for staff and sanitizer for carts and baskets. Sadly, the days of samples and tasting bars are gone for now. “We want to be 100-per-cent right when we do reopen,” said Shortt.
Like the Green Room Barbershop, the Four All Ice Cream Scoop Shop in Uptown Waterloo had only a short window to serve customers before the lockdown began. “We were open for about a week before we had to close,” said founder Ajoa Mintah.
Their retail team was laid off at the start and the production team stayed on to make ice cream with stock they had on hand. “We needed to process all the perishable dairy we had on hand and get all that made into ice cream,” Mintah said.
As with many of us, Mintah thought the closures would only last for a couple of weeks. The bulk of Four All’s sales are to wholesale customers – local grocery and food stores in the region. With their additional stock made, Four All used their existing online store to sell for delivery and curbside pickup. “Between wholesale and the online store, we sold through it all in a week.”
Mintah took a step back and decided to update her store. Originally, it had offered a four-pack of ice cream cubes. With the launch of the online store, customers could now buy single cubes, four-packs, ice cream taco kits and even 1.5-gallon tubs of Four All’s popular cereal milk ice cream. (Note to self, make room in the freezer.)
It didn’t take long for customers to ask about reopening once word came down from the province. “One customer called and told us we could open and I thought “...that’s nice, but we need to do it right.” Mintah pointed out that getting ice cream delivered is nice but getting a scoop in a cone in person is something unique and special.
“About a week after the announcement, we figured out what we would do,” added Mintah. She accessed the Waterloo Region guidelines for businesses and started putting measures in place. The Scoop Shop has hanging shields separating staff from customers. There’s also a limited number of guests allowed in at a time. “We’re used to crowds, squeezing in together. I wasn’t skeptical about it working, but I was worried that we’re only able to go so fast.”
One thing that stresses Mintah out is a long line. “We can’t add more staff behind the counter.” To make things move more smoothly, Four All will have signs outside letting customers know what flavours are available and how to order. “It gives people something to do. I appreciate that people are willing to wait, but I want to figure out a way to shorten that.”
Even with the Scoop Shop reopening, Mintah said that Four All will continue its online presence. “It’s here to stay. The online store was something we had been planning to do, but this situation spurred us to do it sooner.”
Offering a differentiated in-store experience isn’t just for ice cream fans. Long-time uptown retailer Loop Clothing has reopened its store with a twist. “We’ve been wanting to go appointment-only for a year now,” said owner Alnoor Keshvani. “We have people who come in, try on different sizes and then go buy it elsewhere. You can’t go see your lawyer for free. We needed to put a value on our time.” For Keshvani, service has been part of Loop’s success, but he felt that retailers have been giving it away for free. “Online sales don’t have the same level of service. We want to put a value on it.”
Customers can now book 1:1 consultations in 10-minute, half-hour and hour-long sessions. “It’s a pay-as-you-go system,” added Keshvani. “We can now focus on customers who generally want and need service.”
For customers who love their selection, but don’t need the 1:1 service, Loop offers the collections through its online store Bricks and Bonds. Loop Clothing is now 100-per-cent appointment-only and will stay that way, even after restrictions are lifted. “We’re going to keep rolling with it. This is the new Loop.”
Keshvani sees this new model working for more than just retail. “We’re not going to have the amount of people in the store, or even in restaurants. Space costs money and that space can’t be used. People are going to want to pay for experiences – whether that’s 1:1 service here or pop-up dining experiences. It’s about experiencing something unique.”
Whether you’re heading out to a patio, grabbing a cone of funky monkey or picking up a new pair of jeans, remember to practise physical distancing and wear a mask.
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While we’re washing our hands again, I see and hear that...you should check out these lists of Black-owned and BIPOC-owned businesses across our community. KWRising has a great list on Instagram curated by the African Caribbean and Black Network of Waterloo Region. CuratedKW has an Instagram story of specials from BIPOC-owned businesses. There’s also a new account called blackowned.kw that spotlights businesses, from fitness to baking and more.