#LoveLocal: Cambridge restaurant reaching customers through TikTok, social media during COVID-19 pandemic

·4 min read

Locally owned and operated businesses are the social, cultural and economic heart of a community. Unfortunately, this past year has left many unsure if they can continue. In this weeklong series, we look at the vital role local businesses play in our communities, the financial pressure they are under due to COVID-19 and what we can do to help them survive.

Mario Gonsalves bucked the trend.

With small businesses either pivoting their plans during the pandemic to remain financially viable or succumbing to the lost revenue and closing shop, the owner of The Local Option eatery opened for business.

He started negotiations on the former Mr. Sub site on Main Street in downtown Galt in January 2020, before talks of COVID-19 took hold and before the virus itself arrived in Canada. Then March came along and everything stopped, he said.

The first shutdown gave him time to think and reinvigorated his plan for the healthy, fast-food concept he had for his restaurant. With limited seating, customers could come in and grab a quick meal to go.

“I was just, it’s a great corner, a great unit, I really like my concept and it was something I had been thinking about for a while. I just said if everything goes to crap anyway, is my lease really going to matter,” Gonsalves said.

The Local Option opened in October and he was happy with how his clientele was building, even when Waterloo region was allocated in the red operating zone. His business plan fit the current climate.

“We saw decent numbers and sales were climbing. Covering our niche into the market was nice and we had a good time with that.”

Then the stay-at-home order was instilled on Boxing Day. Residents could go in to order takeout at restaurants but were ordered to make only essential trips. That shifted people’s thinking, Gonsalves said.

Despite confusing government messaging and fear instilled by media, he said, customers are slowly starting to come back.

“You have to be extremely light on your feet. It’s really testing businesses at this point,” he said.

While Gonsalves said he is in good shape, more local businesses will permanently fold the longer COVID-19 restrictions remain in place, a small business advocate says.

Ryan Mallough, director of provincial affairs for Ontario at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), said a survey of its members found one in six are considering closing up shop, which represents about 75,000 businesses in Ontario. That rate is one in three in the hospitality sector.

“When you lose a small business in a community, it’s not just the economic loss, it’s not just the business owner’s livelihood being pulled away, the employees’ livelihood, you’re losing a little bit of your community’s soul. You’re losing that meeting spot. Those things make our neighbourhoods unique and really make main street what it is,” Mallough said.

Gonsalves said he did his best during the stay-at-home orders to keep his establishment in people’s minds, making Tik Tok videos and posting them, along with photos, on social media.

“Guests are on their phone and computer and on three or four major social media outlets and you can reach them through there. Being more active on social media and having fun with that and be creative with that has been helpful,” he said.

Those strategies are important for small businesses, as the establishments are integral to a community.

Mallough noted brick-and-mortar businesses pay local municipal taxes that fund area services, while e-commerce retailers do not. Also, 88 per cent of CFIB’s members employ locally; 84 per cent donate goods and services to charities and causes; and 39 per cent sponsor a sports team.

“That dollar, when you spend it online, at an international or multi-national company, that money is just gone. When you spend it locally, it just goes so much further,” Mallough said.

With a prediction of doom for local businesses should there be a third shutdown, Gonsalves thinks businesses may still survive.

“Unfortunately, we’re used to it.”

With files by Dominik Kurek

Bill Doucet, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cambridge Times