Birch Cliff Businesses Grateful for Local Support
By Hedy Korbee, Birch Cliff News
Irene Peters’ eyes brim with tears when she talks about her gratitude to the Birch Cliff community for helping to keep local businesses afloat at a time when COVID-19 has pushed retailers and restaurants all over the world into bankruptcy.
As the owner of The House and Garden Co., Peters has been selling florals and curated home decor for more than 20 years at the striking heritage building on the corner of Kingston Rd. And Birchcliff Ave.
Since the Ontario government ordered the mandatory closure of all non-essential businesses on March 24, Peters has weathered a complete shutdown followed by backdoor delivery, contactless pickup, a curbside market, sanitization, masks, social distancing and now limited reopening with three customers at a time.
Despite it all, Peters says she feels lucky and wants to thank the “wonderful” Birch Cliff community.
“We were overwhelmed how many people still needed us in spite of everything that’s happening in the world. We were so grateful to see everyone pick up the phone or place an online order and just say, ‘We still need you. We can’t live without you.’ We’re so, so humbled by everyone’s absolute loyalty.”
Many Birch Cliff residents have been keeping a wary eye on the brick and mortar businesses on Kingston Rd., determined not to let the pandemic tear down a grassroots dream of revitalization hatched in church basements and school gyms 15 years ago.
Their resolve to support local entrepreneurs has meant that most Birch Cliff businesses are hanging on, battered and bruised, but still standing.
Chef Corbin Tomaszeski launched his new food and events company at the same time that coronavirus was gaining a foothold in Canada and just weeks before the provincial shutdown. He’s also feeling the love from Birch Cliff.
“What always shocks me is when people say, ‘Thank you for choosing this community’,” Tomaszeski said. “The irony and maybe the silver lining when it comes to COVID is that as much as people were social distancing and isolating, I think the community itself has rallied together and really kind of created this old school mentality of what community and what your neighbourhood is all about.”
Tomaszeski and his business partner Helen DeVito said keeping their heads above water during this unprecedented time has required hard work, perseverance, and the need to constantly adapt and reinvent their business model.
When their high-profile catering gigs were first cancelled, CORBIN pivoted to the online sale of gourmet meals. When Easter and Passover rolled around they added menus for holidays and special events. Next came “ready to grill” food that people could prepare at home. And now, customers can also buy prepared dishes at Corbin’s Market, a drop-in storefront with meals on offer from Thursday to Sunday.
DeVito said they’ve been able to cover their expenses and “take home a little bit” at the end of the day.
“We’re not killing it,” DeVito said. “We’re killing ourselves doing it because it’s a lot of work. We haven’t taken any time off. We are open every day. And we decided at the beginning of this, that we were going to bite the bullet and do what we needed to do to get through it.”
Adaptability has also been crucial to the success of Mike Beck, the chef who has transformed The Kingston Social House from a small dine-in restaurant to Birch Cliff’s favourite weekend spot for takeout barbecue.
Beck said his business motto of “adapt, improvise, overcome” came in handy when the lockdown was announced during the same week he planned to expand his business hours from weekends to Wednesday through Sunday.
Thanks to a collective local craving for dishes such as Maple Whiskey Pork Side Ribs and Brisket Big Mac, Beck said takeout and delivery sales during the pandemic have been comparable to what he was expecting if the restaurant had remained open.
Beck credits word of mouth from the community for keeping him in business.
“A lot of this community over the decades, even when I went to high school here, it’s a hard-working community and a lot of people see me here every day, either at the smoker, or in the kitchen. And they support us. And they kept the lights on for us in the local community. It’s word of mouth, telling friends about the restaurant. That’s been huge,” Beck said.
Even though Beck has lost money on alcohol sales, he said he’s contemplating a permanent move to a takeout and delivery business model. When restaurants reopen during Phase 3 with social distancing, he doesn’t think he’ll be able to make money on just four tables. Instead, he’s considering renovating and expanding his kitchen with better commercial equipment.
Across the street, business has been “insane” for the last three weeks at Salon O thanks to pandemic-weary clients who are determined to ditch their quarantine hairstyles.
Ever since Phase 2 of the government’s reopening plan took effect on June 24, salon co-owner Karen Azucar has been juggling appointments following a triage strategy: priority for pre-COVID appointments; haircuts and root touch ups first, big stuff later. The salon is now booking for August and all services are offered following strict safety protocols.
Azucar said she treasures her local clients for their support during the first three months of the pandemic.
“I had many, many clients reach out to me buying gift certificates or even just reaching out to say ‘I’ll pay now for my services’, or ‘hang in there, I’m thinking about you’, Azucar said. “I can’t tell you how many clients have reached out and I love them so much for that. They remember that we’re still just a small business and they know that we were hard hit.”
Azucar said government programs designed to help small businesses and individuals affected by COVID were “a godsend”. Personally, she paid her bills through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the salon also benefited from the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program (CECRA).
“We’ve been very, very fortunate that our landlord applied for rent relief for commercial tenants. That means that we only owed 25 per cent of the three months of rent and this month we are back on track,” Azucar say. “There is no way that we would have…that was our biggest concern.”
Caroline Pius of Luxe Home Decor shares the same landlord and said she started to cry when she heard about the rent relief program.
“I’m very grateful to my landlord. Very, very, very grateful. Ali (Shojaat) has been amazingly supportive. They treated me more like family than just somebody that pays rent.”
Last week Pius celebrated her second anniversary on Kingston Road selling a mix of functional and decorative items including kitchen, bath, giftware and seasonal products. She said she’s been frightened “every minute of every day” since COVID hit.
“There’s lots of things to be scared about, right? It’s not just the business,” Pius said. “It was how do we open? How do we make it safe? How do we make sure that if I’m dropping off a bag there’s no contamination? The doors. We have to take away the testers. Shorten the hours.”
Once COVID hit, Pius made the leap to online sales and her revamped website is scheduled to be open for business in the near future.
Now that the bricks and mortar store has reopened with social distancing rules and reduced hours, Pius said business is brisker than it was pre-pandemic. Not only is business fine, but the shorter day allows her to spend more time with her young daughter. She said she feels the Birch Cliff community has made a deliberate effort to help her company survive during a difficult time.
“I’m grateful to be here, grateful to be have a job, grateful to be safe and healthy and grateful to be in this country,” Pius said.
~ Hedy Korbee is a journalist who lives in Birch Cliff. You can follow Hedy at www.birchcliffnews.com/