What did they have to lose if they had already lost everything?
That is the question longtime friends and Sidney residents Elyse Barkley and Murrae Wilson asked themselves after they lost their jobs in the beauty industry at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Where others might have seen plenty of reasons to despair, the friends decided to double down by opening a salon – in September 2020 – mere months after the initial shutdown had cut through their industry.
“We didn’t have anything else to lose, because we were already rock-bottom,” said Barkley. By opening a salon “right in the thick” of the COVID-19 pandemic as Barkley put it, the friends fulfilled a long-hedged ambition.
“(Murrae) and I have always had this dream, in that we would open something together in our hometown of Sidney,” said Barkley. “We were already outside of our comfort zone and we were kind of pushed into a place of discomfort because we were jobless. It could only go up from here.”
Naturally, Barkley and Wilson confronted doubters as well as cheerleaders among family and friends. “They all knew that this was something we wanted to do,” said Barkley. “But they definitely were a little bit apprehensive about the timing of it. But I have always been such a believer that everything happens for a reason.”
Less than two years later, the business is flourishing. In fact, the entrepreneurs recently expanded their offerings by launching a clothing shop called Wren Apparel right next to their salon with the two businesses employing a total of 20 staff.
Did Barkley and Wilson ever consider that the pandemic might also hurt their business in light of their own painful experience of losing their jobs? “I always trusted that when we went back, we wouldn’t get re-shut down,” said Barkley. “It just never was an option in my mind. I just didn’t foresee it happening.”
And if the pandemic had led to another complete shutdown, she and her business partner would have found ways to run the business.
The story of La Boutique and now Wren Apparel can be read as a larger story of the entrepreneurial risk-taking and resilience that has defined new and existing businesses across the Saanich Peninsula during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Take Bill Singer, co-owner of the Rum Runner in Sidney. More than two years after the start of the pandemic, the business is celebrating its 32nd anniversary, an impressive figure for any business, but especially for one in the restaurant industry, where profit margins are small and failure rates high.
As Singer himself acknowledges, his business has benefited from its downtown Sidney location offering breathtaking views of the Salish Sea and Mount Baker. But location, location, location alone doesn’t necessarily make a successful business. Singer believes the longevity of his business stems from reasonable prices, ample portions and laser-sharp focus on local clients.
It is this local market that makes him confident about the future.”(What) I see as a positive is the amount of development that is happening on the Peninsula,” he said. “I think that bodes well for our demographic shift.”
Erika Nelson, who manages Bosley’s By Pet Valu in Sidney for her parents, has seen the same shifts in the community. She sees Sidney attracting families, a development that gives her confidence about the prospects for her business specifically and retail generally.
Like the Rumrunner, Bosley’s can look back on a long history in the region, having opened its doors in Sidney more than 20 years ago. But as other businesses have found out, longevity did not immunize them against the effects of the pandemic. Bosley’s also went through fluctuations.
“It was tough,” said Nelson. “Like everybody else, we had ups and downs. But a lot of people started adopting pets through the pandemic. So we had to adjust and keep going.”
But Nelson and her staff, some of whom have worked at Bosley’s for over 20 years, persevered.
“We’re OK,” said Nelson of her experience. “Pets are essential. They need to eat. They need all their stuff.”
Nelson could also draw on her father’s background in business, Bosley’s supply chains, and the business’s deep connection in the community. Like Singer, Nelson sees challenges ahead because of rising costs. Supply chain issues also continue. But a tone of accomplishment also colours Nelson’s comments about going through the COVID-19 experience.
“We are extremely proud of ourselves,” she said. “We are proud of our staff. We have amazing loyal customers. Even through the pandemic, we have been able to raise for organizations (helping pets) that don’t have enough funds.”
Other Peninsula entrepreneurs, some more established, others just starting off, have also used the COVID-19 pandemic as pivots in their professional careers.
Take Jennifer Etherington, who opened Avenue B Home Decor in November 2021. She had worked as a consultant in the hospitality industry, which in her words had “turned to zero” in 2020. “So I had to find something new for myself and this is something I always wanted to do,” she said. “So I took the leap and I’m thrilled and pleased that I did.”
Etherington, who had worked for decades in the hospitality industry, helping hotels with budgeting and revenue forecast along the way, found the transition into retail seamless. Customer service underpins both the hospitality and retail industry, she said. “So I don’t think the transition has been hard at all,” she said.
As with Barkley and Wilson, Etherington encountered skeptics. “Some people were very concerned for me, but I did a lot of due diligence and work,” she said. “And when I opened, everybody was very kind and very supportive.”
This level of support has allowed her to grow, going from two to six staff, and she too feels optimistic about the future in light of the region’s development.
Ryan Hayter, co-owner of Marigold Cafe in Central Saanich, lives that growth. His business, which opened in February 2021, lies a stone’s throw from the Marigold Lands development, a multi-phased residential development featuring condominiums and rental housing just off the Lochside Trail. In fact, Hayter’s family lives in the immediate neighbourhood, making for a very short commute.
A trained executive chef, Hayter and his wife Jennifer Hackett had started to plan their business before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“And then everything shut down with the pandemic,” he said. “So it was actually quite a good time for me and my wife to take the time and really be able to put the effort into making the business into what it is now.”
To top it all off, the couple welcomed their first child, Will, in April 2020.
“We were planning on having a family,” he said. “We just weren’t exactly planning on it happening at exactly the same time as opening our business.”
COVID-19, of course, delayed that opening. But the COVID-19 shutdown also gave the young family the necessary breathing space and time to refine their concept for the cafe which seeks to benefit from the development coming up around it and the proximity to the Lochside Trail with its steady parade of passing cyclists.
The timing of Will’s arrival has also meant that he has been growing up with the business.
“He has been here since day one, running around in the dining room, even before we opened,” said Hayter. “We had a little playpen set up in the middle of the cafe while we were getting all set up.”
In many ways, the COVID-19 shutdown may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “We couldn’t open right away anyway,” he said. “It definitely wasn’t our intent to open in the middle of the pandemic, but when it happened, we were invested too much into it and just decided to plow through with it.”
Things were not easy in the initial phase following the opening. With indoor capacity limited, the business moved operations outside. “It definitely wasn’t ideal that our guests had to sit out in the cold, but it was survival mode at that point,” said Hayter.
Nearly 18 months after opening though, the cafe has found a supportive clientele.
“Everybody was really excited for us to come,” he said. “We felt really welcomed here from the beginning.”
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