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THE PIVOT: ‘Free’ meals boost business at Sydney Street Pub and Café in Digby

A sign promotes physical distancing at the Sydney Street Pub and Café in Digby.
A sign promotes physical distancing at the Sydney Street Pub and Café in Digby.

The Players:

Saskia Geerts and her husband, Claude Perreault, own the Sydney Street Pub and Café in Digby.

The Problem:

Revenue fell to zero and employees were laid off for three months when the business closed during lockdown. Ongoing social distancing restrictions have cut the pub’s seating capacity in half. Travel restrictions are preventing tourists from outside the Atlantic bubble from visiting. They usually provide half the business’s revenue.

The Pivot:

Eager to help the community during lockdown, Geerts prepared meals that were ready to reheat and placed them in a fridge on the pub’s patio. Anyone could simply walk up, take a meal and pay whatever they wanted by donation.

A pub owner in Digby survived lockdown this year and is planning to grow the business by offering meals for free, or whatever amount patrons want to give by donation.

Saskia Geerts and her husband, Claude Perreault, who together previously owned and operated the Backpacker’s Inn in Digby, now own the Sydney Street Pub and Café.

When the provincial government shut down all but essential businesses, Geerts laid off her five employees and closed March 18.

Then, she began to volunteer, delivering groceries to shut-ins. It opened her eyes.

“I saw the need around town. There were a lot of people struggling and I looked at the pub and thought, ‘I can’t go radio silent for months because I’ll be out of people’s minds.”

Geerts began to offer pre-cooked meals in a small fridge on the porch of the restaurant in the second week of April.

“I started to do heat-and-eat meals,” she says.

“I put a fridge on the balcony for a few hours a day. They would be in containers that you could put in the oven. Everything from a shepherd’s pie to roast chicken . . . and different soups.”

The cost to those who picked up the meals? Whatever they could spare.

“We did it by donation,” says Geerts.

“I just had a donation box. Every time, I got enough in donations to cover my costs.”

The word quickly spread that the pub was offering meals by donation with social distancing.

“I would post it on Facebook. It got to the point where on Tuesdays I was selling out, about 40 to 50 meals, so I started doing it on Fridays as well,” she says.

“At the peak, we were going 80 to 100 meals a week. I was onsite every day to restock the fridge. I would disinfect the door of the fridge each time someone would come and go.”

“You’ve got to slowly rebuild but a lot of people were nervous about coming out – some still are – and you’re reopening with half of your seating capacity.”

The donations averaged about $10 per meal, putting monthly revenue from the initiative at about $3,600. Geerts says that was enough to cover the direct costs of buying the food and preparing it.

The pub’s mortgage payments were deferred for three months by the CBDC, giving the business a break. Then, on June 11, it was allowed to reopen but had to implement all the COVID-19 safety precautions, including hand sanitizing, disinfection of high-contact areas and social distancing between patrons.

Usually, the pub could seat 145, including 75 inside and another 70 on its outdoor double-level balcony. With social distancing, the business is operating at half capacity. It can only use 72 seats, including the outdoor area.

That’s left the pub with 30 to 35 seats for patrons during the off-season. Revenue has plummeted.

“Last year, revenues would have been $400,000,” says Geerts.

“This year, I’m looking at $200,000 with half the capacity and having been shut down for almost three months.

“You’ve got to slowly rebuild but a lot of people were nervous about coming out – some still are – and you’re reopening with half of your seating capacity.”

International travel bans for all but essential workers kept tourists from outside the Atlantic bubble away during peak summer season. Those tourists usually comprise up to half the patrons during the summer months. Staycations helped soften that blow.

As the business lost its usual flow of tourists from outside the region, many Atlantic Canadians took vacations at home. Geerts estimates her local business is up 30 per cent over last year.

Since the reopening, she has rehired all her staff. She is paying them with the help of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program, which covered up to about 85 per cent of salaries in August.

The entrepreneur has also availed herself of the $40,000 interest-free loans provided to small businesses and non-profits to cover operating costs during the pandemic. Under the terms, businesses are allowed to pay back $30,000, provided it is by the end of 2022.

Geerts is planning to apply for another loan under that program.

“I’m probably at about 60 or 65 per cent (of my revenue) compared to October last year,” she says.

“At that level and with the wage subsidy program, I can make ends meet.

“I was able to guarantee (my employees) full-time hours thanks to that wage subsidy program. They’re now extending it to June next year and that will make all the difference in the world.”

In about a week, the pub will be reintroducing its by-donation, ready-to-eat meal program, with any proceeds above costs going to the local Grace United Church. Its hall was destroyed by fire in February.

“It’s going to be on Tuesdays from 4-7 p.m.,” says Geerts.

“We’ll have a limited menu of three or four items, all good and proper meals, and people will be able to come and eat a meal by donation.

“You’ll be welcome to sit down and eat it (in the pub) or, if you’re not comfortable with that, you can take it with you and reheat it.”

The Pivot is a regular feature about an Atlantic Canadian company adapting to new market realities with innovative products, services or strategies. To suggest a business, email: [email protected]


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