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Local businesses permanently changed by pandemic, owners say

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Cathy Dobson

The way small business operates in Sarnia will never return to how it was pre-pandemic.

So say operators who successfully pivoted over the past year by making drastic changes in service and deliver.

The managers and owners were guest speakers at a recent roundtable discussion hosted virtually by the Sarnia-Lambton Economic Partnership’s Business Enterprise Centre.

They were invited to the “pivot panel” because of their ability to move quickly and find ways to survive, even thrive, through the pandemic, said moderator Chantelle Core.

Chantelle Core

At the Sarnia Golf and Curling Club, general manager Michael Hearse said the restaurant not only offers curbside meal pickup now, it works with local charities to fundraise with takeout dinners.

“That’s something we’ll absolutely carry forward post-pandemic,” he said. The club also sells its members meat and grocery packs and has a mobile app that allows them to order food while still on the golf course.

With members unable to attend many of the usual social activities, the club is offering virtual cooking classes, wine events, and a speaker series with presenters from around the world.

“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to focus on partnerships and supporting your community,” said Hearse. “Don’t be afraid to step outside of your core business.”

The pandemic’s onset set off alarm bells at Great Lakes Refill Company, said co-owner Lisa Ladouceur. The low-waste grocery store and refillery had been in business less than three years and recently opened a bigger location on Christina Street.

Lisa Ladouceur

“We panicked,” Ladouceur admitted.  But within a week, Great Lakes was offering curbside pickup.

“We were the only ones who seemed to have flour or yeast at that time and business just exploded,” said Ladouceur.

Great Lakes tapped into a program called Digital Main Street to develop a digital sales platform. Online shopping was a huge success and will be an important aspect of the business going forward, said Ladouceur.

“Online grocery shopping is going to be with us forever,” she said.  “People now realize how easy it is to order at home in your PJs and do a quick pick up.”

Great Lakes Refill also recently launched a joint venture called Ecodemy Education, which offers online sustainable workshops to youth and adults.

Brian Austin Jr., executive director at the Imperial Theatre, joined the panel to discuss his organization’s fundraising events and generating online material with no live theatre attendance.

Brian Austin Jr.

“2019-20 was going to be a banner year for us and we went into crisis mode when we shut down in March,” said Austin Jr.   The Imperial immediately refunded $300,000 in ticket sales. Red flags were up all over the place.”

But a well-developed customer database that’s grown from 4,200 to 47,000 helped the theatre reach a wider audience when it switched to digital content.

The Pivot Panel also featured Matt Pasut, owner of CR Creative in Wyoming, and Adrian Roelands, co-owner of Roelands Plant Farms and Plantables in Lambton Shores.




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