Riding the pandemic bull – small business style.

Photo by Bobby Owens Photography. 

We’ve hit the seven-month mark of navigating our businesses through a turbulent economic environment. If there were a metaphor for this ride we’ve been on, I’d imagine it to be a tough, snorting bull at the Stampede Rodeo, one that only the fiercest of bull riders would dare to ride for eight seconds.

This week, Calgary is celebrating Small Business Week. As tough as bull riders, our small business community continues to persevere through perhaps one of the most challenging times we have collectively seen. That said, what deserves to be recognized and celebrated the most is the unity within our community and the innovation that has transpired. Over the past months, we’ve leaned on each other for advice and support. We’ve engaged in dozens of open and transparent conversations to help each other, knowing there was only one option for us – we had to figure it out. And together, we’re still figuring it out.  

As Calgary celebrates this spirit of unity during Small Business Week, we’re sharing inspirational stories of local businesses innovating within their own space, or as we like to call it, “cool people doing cool things.” Everyone wants to see each other succeed, and that is something to be celebrated. We’ve become each other’s champions, and now is the perfect time to shine the spotlight on some truly inspirational local businesses.

We’re grateful to be in the chutes with all of our small business friends. Here’s our first rider:

Phoebe Fung – Vin Room

Phoebe Fung has already made one successful pivot in her career. In 2008, she left the oil and gas sector to open up Vin Room in Mission, which led to two more locations in West Springs and the Calgary airport.

“The good thing about being an entrepreneur is that you can be a ‘benevolent dictator.’ (When you run the show but have everybody’s best interest at heart.) You can move very quickly because of that. I got into the restaurant business not because of the riches that go with it, but for the personal satisfaction of owning your own business.”

When restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms because of the pandemic, Vin Room had to change its business model in a hurry. Within 48 hours, the restaurant converted from a dine-in restaurant to a full take-out menu using their staff to make deliveries.

“The reality is this: throw your numbers out the window. Work on what you can control and go from there.”

How have you been able to innovate your way out of the pandemic so far?

Converting from dine-in to take out in that 48-hour window was the first big hurdle. Vin Room was known for special ‘date night out’ packages. We converted that to a ‘Date Night In’ promotion. Over the last six months, we’ve really listened to our customers. We recently created ready-made meals for company video calls complete with wine pairings. Clients set a date for the meeting, and we send our drivers out with deliveries for all the attendees.

In May, we had a very successful ‘Puppies and Prosecco’ event on our patio. We offered classes for customers and their dogs, along with pop-ups where you could buy merchandise for your dog. Proceeds went to the Pawsitive Match Rescue Foundation.

 

How have you been able to use that network to help others?

We want our customers to support local because we support local. As with many small businesses, we rely on a lot of fantastic local suppliers. During the shutdown, we become a distributor for companies who used to sell directly to restaurants. They came to rely on us to sell their products directly to consumers. We picked suppliers, like Lambtastic Farms, Tag Bake Studio and Mountain Rhino Donuts, who wanted to get their product out. We became part of their distribution channel using our website and delivery system.

What have you learned about your customers during this period?

I’ve learned many things. Number one is that we all like to be social. We really miss being out with our friends and our family, so we try to bring that home to people. Number two is everybody needs a break from cooking, a break from the day-to-day life that has suddenly been compressed into the home. I think that’s why our “Date Night-In” package is so successful. Customers have told us to make their lives easier. Give them things that are different. Give them a break from the everyday grind. We can make it happen within the hour, so we’ve gotten pretty good at it.

What advice would you give to small businesses right now who are struggling?

Utilize your social network, create new alliances and collaborate with other businesses. You’d be surprised at how much you can help each other. We, as local businesses, don’t compete with each other; we collaborate. Look for local entrepreneurs you can collaborate with and sell their products. Cross-marketing is the way to go.

 


 

We’re all riding this bull together.

We’re grateful to be in the chutes with all of our small business friends. One of them is the talented photographer of the photo accompanying this blog as well as the captivating photo below, Bobby Owens of Bobby Owens Photography. This cowboy made it to 8 seconds – and together, we will too.

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© Bobby Owens Photography