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Owner Christa Bruneau-Guenther outside of her restaurant, Feast Café Bistro. Photo: Courtesy of Feast Café Bistro

Manitoba small businesses adjust to tighter COVID-19 restrictions

As the provincial government enforces tightened restrictions on non-essential services, local business owners shift into survival mode by responding with novel ideas to maintain operations.

By Emily Palmer , in Business City Culture , on December 12, 2020

As the province of Manitoba tightens restrictions for service and retail establishments, business owners like Christa Bruneau-Guenther are responding with creative ways to stay afloat.

Bruneau-Guenther, the owner of the Winnipeg West End restaurant Feast Café Bistro, has transformed her space into a miniature grocery service, following a new round of regulations that went into effect on Nov. 12. One regulation requires non-essential services to operate only through pick-up and delivery.

The restaurant now showcases the new Feast Grab N’ Go Market with newly installed shelving and displays, filled with Manitoba products, instead of tables and chairs. And Bruneau-Guenther is thinking that might become a permanent feature.

“Even if dine-in comes back, I’m going to leave that whole section as a mini-market, maybe forever.”

Feast is known for its cuisine rooted in Indigenous culture, with dishes such as the “Manitoban” poutine and the shredded-bison dip. The ingredients come from Manitoba farmers, as Bruneau-Guenther is determined to continue to support local producers.

“Because we are local, we can start selling our products,” Bruneau-Guenther said. “It almost becomes like a specialty food market. So that’s kind of where we’re going.”

The province’s hospitality industry has taken more than one hit since the rise of the pandemic, causing business owners to rethink their operations.

“It was a hard pill to swallow to hear that dine-in had to shut down again because COVID-19 cases in Manitoba are so extremely high,” said Bruneau-Guenther.

Owner Christa Bruneau-Guenther holding Feast Café Bistro menu items. Photo: Courtesy of Travel Manitoba

For Lisa Malbranck, co-owner of the Diamond Gallery, responding to pandemic restrictions has been about moving online.

“It’s been a big feat for a small family business. We don’t have other staff, it’s just my parents and myself. So it’s a very small operation,” she said.

Pre-pandemic, Malbranck worked with clients face to face to create unique jewelry designs. Now, everything is done at a distance.

Where she once met clients and allowed them to touch the diamonds, she now relies on photography and web design.

“Ninety-five per cent of everything that we do is custom order so it’s been tricky to do that virtually. So we just have to work with what we have,” she said.

Malbranck, also a member of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says adaptation right now is the key to small business survival.

“Many small businesses have pivoted their operations to continue to serve their clientele, even if it looks a little different than it did pre-COVID.”

Cornelia Bean is relying only on pick-up and delivery orders due to the latest round of lockdown restrictions. Photo: Brooklynn Krul

As the provincial government continues to modify restrictions for certain establishments, select essential convenience stores can still remain open to the public.

But some, like coffee and tea boutique Cornelia Bean, have chosen to close their store and allow curbside pick-up and delivery through an online ordering process only.

“We are choosing to be closed because we feel that it’s the right thing to do for our community,” said Brooklynn Krul, the store’s marketing operations director. “We know a lot of people in the medical system and we took it upon ourselves to lock our doors. We evolved from there.”

With the decision to limit in-person shopping, the local business continues to serve its clientele through its virtual shopping experience.

“We have ramped up our social media, provided an online communication structure and an efficient delivery system,” said Krul.

For Cornelia Bean, the local business has focused on responding to provincial regulations with a community-based approach.

“We want our business to be healthy,” Krul said. “When people reached out to us to make that decision, we were happy to move forward with it.”

As the government of Manitoba continues to release information about the #RestartMB Response System, business owners continue to remind Winnipeggers to support local storefronts.

“I think that small businesses in Winnipeg are trying to find their voice, niche, and passion,” Krul said. “If they want to grow, they have to be supported. Buying local builds a dream. That really sums it up for me.”