VIDEO: Not business as usual as Nelson slowly reopens

Brent Malysh, a co-owner of Backroads Brewing Company, is one of many entrepreneurs attempting to reopen their business in Nelson. Photo: Tyler Harper
Otter Books owner Letty Bartels (centre) is back at work along with employees Samara Nicoll (left) and Dakota Fontaine. Photo: Tyler Harper
Petra Shreenan is an employee at Shoe La La, which had only just opened its new storefront in March before the pandemic shut it back down. Photo: Tyler Harper

Brent Malysh thought his dream might die.

Backroads Brewing Company, which Malysh co-owns with Mike Kelly and Tracey Brown, has become a popular place to grab a beer on Baker Street since it opened in 2017.

But as it became apparent in March that the COVID-19 pandemic would force a provincial shut down, Malysh became more stressed with each day.

A funny thing happened though after the tap house locked its doors — Malysh relaxed.

“Personally, the first couple of days of being forced to shut down were actually really relaxing,” he says. “I didn’t realize how much of a torrid pace I’d set for myself and for all three of us business owners, and just a clip that we were going at.”

Now, two months later, Malysh and other Nelson business owners are reopening having learned some difficult lessons while also facing new challenges.

Backroads reopened May 25 with plexiglass dividers at every table, new restrictions on how customers order and a max capacity of less than half the number of patrons it used to serve.

But Malysh said recreating the jolly, beer-fuelled atmosphere Backroads used to have has been an unexpected hurdle.

“I don’t know if we’ve entirely figured that out yet,” he says. “We always used to promote squishing in on the tables next to strangers, essentially telling them you need to engage with these random people next to you and no, you can’t have your phone, and we’re not going to give you the Wi-Fi password and all these things to really encourage that social closeness.

“Now when we’re telling them to be further apart, it’s been a struggle for us to figure out how to make that environment still happen.”

The importance of having customers present became an early obstacle for Cody Abbey.

The owner of Maverick Fitness started running classes online over Zoom, which he admits was something he wouldn’t have wanted if he were a client.

“The part of coming to the gym is the energy and the atmosphere that you’re going to experience,” says Abbey.

“People just don’t necessarily feel that in their living room. There are all sorts of distractions. There are kids running around. And so it’s sort of ritualistic for people to go to a place and all they think about is working out.”

Maverick Fitness is open again, but classes look much different.

Members are confined to taped off sections where they work out with equipment picked up at the start of class. No children are allowed at the gym, coaches have their temperature taken before class and members have to disinfect and mop off their area when they are finished.

Abbey has also kept the Zoom classes because he says he can’t afford to rely on old ways of running his business. During the shutdown he spoke with fellow gym owners who advised he needed to prepare for a six-month closure.

“You always hear the older generations say you need to save for a rainy day, save for a crisis. And you know it’s good advice,” says Abbey.

”But I’ve been never been exposed to anything in my life, so I’m going to wait to take that advice serious. And this really put it into perspective, like anything can happen at any point.”

Slim margins

The 122-year-old Hume Hotel shut down for two weeks, then opened its accommodations at a time when tourists were told to stay home. It also closed its restaurants, but continued its food delivery service.

General manager Ryan Martin says it took about two weeks of work to reopen the restaurants, which finally happened on May 29. About half the staff who were laid off have returned, he said, and they’ve received a warm welcome from customers.

“It felt like the community was giving us a big hug,” says Martin. “So it’s been very few to no really upset people giving us a hard time about it. There’s been a lot of compassion and it’s really appreciated.”

Still, Martin and others are finding reopening restaurants is not so simple as putting menus back on tables.

The lack of visitors, as well as the June 1 minimum wage raise increase of 75 cents to $14.60 per hour, is making for a difficult return to business.

“I don’t know how much people realize how narrow the profit margins are. It’s easy to go to a restaurant and look at an $18 to $20 hamburger and think that’s expensive,” says Martin.

“If you’re trying to pay your kitchen staff a decent living wage and you’re trying to buy good quality ingredients and then also all your overhead, your insurance, your menus, your printing, your WorkSafe, it leaves you very little.”

The changes in service aren’t lost on customers either.

Trevor Ditzel owns Rel-ish Bistro, which reopened May 19. With its patio and access to street traffic on Baker Street, Ditzel said the business he does through the summer usually makes up for slow winters.

“Now we’re just plugging along like it’s wintertime,” he says.

Ditzel said supply issues have meant he’s had to make changes to some dishes. Coconut milk, for example, is an ingredient he’s had to switch brands just to keep it in stock. That means a meal tastes just a little different than it used to.

“People will know that,” he says, “and comment.”

The storm settles

Months of work were about to pay off for Erin Elliott.

The owner of Shoe La La had been preparing an extensive renovation to the company’s new location at the corner of Ward and Baker Streets. What started as her parent’s business as Kootenay Cobbler in 1983 was about to relaunch at Nelson’s most popular intersection.

Elliott opened up the new space the first week of March. About two weeks later, on March 18, she closed her doors and wasn’t sure when, or if, they would reopen.

“We didn’t know if we could weather the storm to be honest,” says Elliott. “Our reno took longer and of course like any reno it was a lot more expensive than we had anticipated.”

Elliott said she had already received her spring and summer stock of shoes, which she was suddenly on the hook for with no customers during what is usually Shoe La La’s busiest time of the year.

“So to close our doors and have nothing coming in at all with the bills that we had was pretty scary.”

Like Richards, Elliott made an online push for sales. Just five to 10 per cent of her previous web sales had been to Nelson customers. It made sense — why buy online when the store is a close drive away?

But during the shut down, 95 per cent of Elliott’s online buyers were locals.

“They’re the people who would have come in anyways, but they could have shopped online anywhere,” says Elliott. “And what’s incredible to me is that there is so much awareness to support the local businesses that they chose to shop local.”

When her store was closed, Elliott said it was difficult to be the only person coming in every day. She took a week of customer appointments before reopening May 11 and realized how much she had been craving human connection.

Her customers, she says, needed it too. Even if what they thought they were looking for was just a new pair of shoes.

“It’s bringing the normalcy back a little bit.”

@tyler_harper | tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

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