Shutdown threatens dreams of Montreal's small business owners

In 2018, Sandrine Campeau decided to take the plunge. She quit her job at a pharmaceutical company and began baking full-time.

A year later, she opened Sandrini Confections, a small shop on Sherbrooke Street in NDG.

She enjoyed early success with catering, cupcakes and birthday cakes — and her gelato ice cream drew long lines in front of the shop last summer.

Campeau was careful not to spend too much early on: much of her bright, pink space was outfitted with second-hand items. But earlier this month, she decided to invest $3,000 in a bigger oven and mixer to meet the growing demand.

Then came COVID-19.

On Tuesday, like thousands of others, Campeau was forced to close her store in compliance with the province's order to shut down all but essential businesses.

"The reality is sort of setting in. And I'm getting a bit emotional about it," she said.

The province and city have already announced several measures to help small businesses during the crisis.

Quebec said last week it is making $2.5 billion available for businesses, much of that to be delivered in the form of loans and loan guarantees through banks.

Montreal also put forward measures, including Mayor Valérie Plante's offer of a six-month moratorium on capital and interest payments for certain municipal loan programs.

But Campeau and other business owners worry those measures won't be enough. She is reluctant to take out a bank loan.

"I don't think it's necessarily the most prudent thing to do for me," she said, adding that tax breaks would be a better fit.

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has sent a chill through small businesses right across Canada.

In a survey this week of 11,000 members by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, nearly one in three businesses say they can survive less than a month under the current conditions.

Asked the same question last week, one in four members said they could survive that long. The average cost of the outbreak to affected businesses has also doubled since last week, to $136,000.

'A business can fail': economy minister

On Montreal's Daybreak Wednesday, Quebec's economy minister, Pierre Fitzgibbon, acknowledged the scope of the potential economic fallout.

Some businesses, he said, will never recover.

"It would be utopia to think we can help everybody. But some businesses would've failed anyway, crisis or not. This is where we need to be cautious," he said.

"Now, a business can fail, and it can rebound as well.... Failure doesn't mean it's the end of the road. I think I'm optimistic we can do well."

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Some small business owners have sent out notices on social media encouraging customers to order online or buy a gift certificate to help keep them afloat.

Independent bookstores — including NDG's Nearly New Bookstores, The Word in the McGill Ghetto, and Drawn and Quarterly in Mile End — are offering free delivery, in the hope of keeping customers who might be lured by Amazon and other online stores.

"We're really getting a lot of good community support," said Drawn and Quarterly's Arizona O'Neill.

"We've just had a flood of people putting in orders or buying gift certificates."

She said the store, which carries an eclectic and varied selection of titles, normally depends heavily on foot traffic. These days, they are offering recommendations on the phone and online.

High hopes for summer

Campeau, who has two children, aged four and eight, dreams of a summer where locals will be able to stop by once again for gelato.

In the meantime, she's getting creative.

She has begun delivering ready-to-decorate cupcakes for parents looking for an activity outside of school — even if many, now stuck at home, have turned to baking themselves.

"It's tough because I know a lot of people have been laid off and have their own economic uncertainty," she said.

"If this continues into our ice cream season, then we're in trouble."