I was asked by the Editor at the Times Colonist (The daily in Victoria) to write an Op-Ed on how the current situation has affected Cook Culture and my take on the future of retail.
By Jed Grieve, Partner in Cook Culture
Our business, like most every retail business, has been hit hard by the reality of the COVID pandemic.
We started Cook Culture in 2010, in the then new Atrium Building downtown. Our concept is simple, teach locals how to cook more nutritious food at home and supply the high quality gear that’s needed to be successful in the kitchen. Within a few years we opened in downtown Vancouver and North Vancouver with the same goal. We’d grown to 28 staff in 3 locations, now we have 2.
The staff in our Lonsdale and Victoria location did not want to be in public and chose to be laid off. This has closed our Victoria and North Vancouver locations and those locations have zero revenue coming in.
We’re extremely fortunate that we’ve spent years developing our online capabilities and as more people are at home cooking, our online business has been keeping us occupied. However we’re just rearranging the deckchairs, as they say. All of our landlords have given us concessions, some more generous than others, so for the meantime we are able to manage our expenses and keep the business operational.
However a reckoning is coming. No matter how fair our landlords are to us, we can’t reasonably expect them to not ask rent for 6 months, or a year. They’re running a business too, however there’s no way that our business will be the same anytime soon which means we will not have the revenue we need to pay our rent. Our cooking classes, which drive a large amount of our business in all locations will suffer for months, or years. It’s impossible to keep a 2 meter distance at a Cooking Class so classes are canceled indefinitely.
We find ourselves in a strange limbo time, where our business is a fraction of what it was, but are kept busy in the day, helping people cook at home. We’re mailing out pots and pans, knives, bread making equipment, and the like, but I have no idea what tomorrow will bring. Even in the good times, the margin for us to stay afloat was razor thin due to the highly competitive nature of modern retail. This means that as life begins to ‘normalise’ it’s impossible to see how we can maintain our previous fixed costs and stay afloat as I’m sure that as we are to rehire staff, and start up shuttered stores, our revenue and expenses will be way out of whack.
A bright light
Over the last few weeks I’ve been wearing all the hats that I’d delegated over the last 10 years. I’ve been relearning some processes and fumbling around trying to figure out jobs that I hadn’t done for years. This is good for any business owner and has me more connected to the mechanics of my business than I’ve been for a long time. One of my main day to day jobs is online customer service where I answer phone calls and emails for people placing online orders. This opportunity has been a silver lining to this Pandemic. I’ve had more positive, supportive conversations with customers than I’ve had since before the internet. Remember that! Customers shopped in their local stores, and I saw our ‘regulars’ all the time. I knew many of our customers by first name and also many of their relatives that lived locally. Small retail businesses are part of the fabric of communities and all the retailers I know operate their businesses for the love of being in their communities. Trust me, they don’t do it to get rich!
The response that I’ve had from customers has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. We’re working hard to offer as much price value as we can and I’m finding locals are meeting us in the middle, with messages like ‘I’d been thinking about this pot for a while and now is the right time to buy it from you.’
Buying local is the only way for local businesses to survive. Period. Governments and landlords will do what they can, however as we all come out of this I believe it’s important to identify the businesses that you care about and make an ongoing effort to patrionaise them. If they’re not offering the item, price, or selection you want, then tell them. Don’t ghost them and start buying from Amazon or you’ll find that sooner than later Amazon (and the like) is all you’ll have left.
We’ll make it through this, however some, including us, may not operate the same type of business that they did pre COVID-19. Maybe this is an opportunity for businesses to transition, and offer more compelling products and/or services, but when it comes down to it, the only way for our local communities to be fully vibrant is for our restaurants and retail shops to be open. This is how our local shopping dollars will determine the future of our local communities.