Surviving as a Small Business During COVID-19
From the Nest, Issue 3
by Cooper Watts
I had just finished tattooing a couple who had come to my shop from Barrie. They were our last clients after a few weeks of steady cancellations due to the flu. At that time, news outlets and social media platforms were already flooded with reports of a new virus that was rapidly spreading across the planet.
In fact, Doug Ford had announced a lockdown for the Province of Ontario a week prior. As the couple pulled out of the parking space next to the shop, we waved our farewells and I closed up the shop for what I thought would be the next two weeks. This was March 22, 2020. The first lockdown started just two days later.
Those two weeks turned into almost 4 months.
As a small business owner, this was a brutal time. We were without any income from our business, yet the bills were still coming in the mail; our landlord at the time had not applied for the rent subsidy to alleviate the pressure of our monthly rent payments during lockdown.
Once the initial two weeks of lockdown were extended, our hearts were in our stomachs as it became more and more evident that our business may not survive. Personally, my emotions were constantly running the gamut—happiness that we were at least safe, sad that we had no clue what to expect, angry at inept politicians, and feelings of guilt that there were others losing so much more than we were.
We were extremely fortunate that our combined rent and bills at home and at our shop were just under $3k in total. My wife and I were able to sustain this with our Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) cheques. Our mental health was kept out of the red by the fact that we knew, at least initially, that we weren’t going to lose our business or our apartment during this very unpredictable time.
The first lockdown eventually came to a close and our shop was back in action, yet the pandemic still raged on.
An opportunity arose that enabled us to take advantage of the pandemic to secure ourselves a much bigger shop to house our increasing staff. Our goal was to rebrand and expand our services to make for a few new jobs, not just for tattoo artists, but for aestheticians as well.
We also have plans to get the bar side of our shop up and running as a destination where so can get tattooed, get your nails done, along with brows or lashes, and have a beer or wine afterwards. Thankfully we got our ideal location without any of the bigger local corporations swooping in and taking it. The number of staff grew and we were steadily working.
Fast forward to almost one year later and here we are two weeks after a second lockdown was lifted. We are still in the midst of a pandemic, vaccine rollout in Ontario is like a trickling faucet, Hamilton is still designated a “Red Zone”, and people are timid about going to non-essential businesses. I can clearly state that this last lockdown was quite the eye-opener. It showed me how all levels of government are improperly handling this. Fear not, I won’t step on that political soapbox here.
This pandemic has really wrought havoc on our shop. Our revenue has been reduced by 75% because “by appointment only” bookings have excluded us from being able to serve the spontaneous clients who want to just walk in when their itch happens.
Though we were able to initially expand and hire, there has since been a loss of staff who have sought potentially greener pastures at other local shops. The only help we qualified for through government aid was the $10k Ontario Small Business Support Grant (we incorporated in August which made us appear as a brand new business in the eyes of the government, which made us ineligible for loans or subsidies).
Because we are deemed a “Personal Service Setting” (like all tattoo shops, nail salons, hairdressers, barbers, tanning salons, etc.) we had zero options at our disposal to generate enough income during lockdown. We can’t sell our services through online shopping or take advantage of curbside, takeout, or delivery options, like other retail sectors can.
It was quite upsetting to see the public and local organizations rallying for the restaurants in this city (who continued to make income by serving their customers via take-out and delivery), but no one rallying for Personal Services outside of the people in our industry. It really showed us where the favouritism lives in Hamilton.
Despite all of these odds being stacked against us, we are maintaining pretty decent mental health. We are taking it month-by-month and trimming our budget in order to sustain operations and survive until the world is in a state where we can experience a larger flow of clients and get our shop bar licensed to serve. I would like to add that we have not had a single issue with any patron coming in who refused to follow our mask mandate. This in itself is a small victory.
After all of this, everybody is going to need a nice cold beer or a glass of wine. We know that if we can just keep going for the next few months that we will see the end of this and will have proven our mettle — because that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Cooper Watts is the co-owner of Vagabond Saints, a tattoo lounge and alternative spa in downtown Hamilton