BOW VALLEY – The public health and economic crisis for the past year due to the pandemic has been exceptionally tough on many small businesses – but it has not stopped local entrepreneurs from launching new businesses or pivoting during these uncertain times.
In Canmore and Banff, a number of new businesses have forged ahead with plans to open a new business, or used the disruption they experienced to pivot and invest in new opportunities.
Veterinarian Nathan Bernadet moved to Canmore in 2019 when he took a full-time position with the Bow River Veterinary Centre – fulfilling a goal he had since graduating in 2008 to live in the mountains he loves to recreate in.
"Right at the beginning of COVID, I was laid off," Bernadet said. "I was left hanging, realizing I was passionate about the community and I wanted to be here long term.
"I spent about three months at the beginning of COVID on the phone building a business from scratch to figure out how to make it work here."
You may have seen Bernadet about town in his Mountain Mobile Veterinary Clinic in a retro-fitted ambulance. This new service delivery model for the vet is uncommon in the industry, with only one other mobile veterinarian operating in northern Alberta.
He said while there are some mobile vets in the U.S., there wasn't a tried and true model for him to build his business plan. He wanted a clinic on wheels that offered a wide range of services for pet owners, which meant the retrofit of the ambulance needed a lot more power to be able to process blood work, as well as install an X-ray machine and ultrasound equipment.
Bernadet is able to do pretty much everything other than surgeries in the unit, but he also offers that service by renting space in Calgary when needed.
"It took a lot of effort because I really wanted to do everything," he said. "With COVID, one thing I have noticed with a lot of businesses is that it has become a reason to lower expectations.
"I wanted to do the opposite in terms of what I could supply for the patient to keep things relaxed and bring the [clinic] to their home. It makes a really big difference for a lot of people."
The biggest challenge, he said, was the power conversion. It took at least six months before he was assured the system would work the way it was designed and a lot of conversations with engineers.
But once Bernadet was confident in the system, he was ready to roll. He is able to provide a wide-range of services and diagnostics. He rents space in Calgary for surgeries and will also pickup and drop-off his patients.
"With COVID, one thing I have noticed with a lot of businesses is that COVID has become a reason to lower expectations," he said. "I wanted to do the opposite in terms of what I could supply."
The ability to connect with clients and their furry family members in person has been a huge benefit to how his mobile clinic operates.
"It has been a wild ride," Bernadet said. "I have never worked harder in my life, wearing a lot of different hats, but I love my job and that is a key aspect.
"Getting laid off at the beginning of COVID was a low point, but I decided to fly since then, so I have no regrets whatsoever ... I am happy with what I am able to provide and the connection I am able to keep with the community."
Chef Blake Flann overcomes COVID hurdles
Canmore Chef Blake Flann was working on opening his new restaurant, 4296 at 626 Eighth St., when COVID-19 changed everything last March.
Having taken a few years off after leaving his last business venture, the key for Flann and his business and life partner Kale McIvor, was to find the right location. When one they liked became available, they gave notice and began working on the business plan at the beginning of 2020.
Flann said they thought they would be able to open the new business within three to four months of taking over the lease at the beginning of February 2020 until the pandemic was declared.
"Away we went and then COVID hit and it was the most terrifying thing," he said. "We had already started, we signed a lease, we borrowed money, we signed with a contractor and began demolition.
"Literally, there was no turning back and we didn’t think it was going to last this long. We thought maybe a month or two – like with SARS."
Undaunted, they pushed forward and focused on creating a space and menu to showcase Flann's talent in the kitchen.
"This was always my dream, to have my own restaurant," he said. "Then two weeks before we were done, there was a fire and that set us back another two months."
At the time of the fire, restaurants were still part of the shutdown in Alberta at the beginning of the pandemic. When they were finally able to open, social distancing restrictions meant he could only sit four tables at a time.
The business plan was built around the number of seats and turnover in the restaurant, as well as being able to do catering for events and weddings. Flann said it was clear the situation was not working and he invested in temporary dividers to separate tables.
"Every seat is money, so when you take away 'X' number of seats, that much revenue is gone," Flann said. "Essentially half the revenue has been gone since day one."
It was exhausting. He said for every two steps forward, they were set back another 10. That includes not being eligible for any of the government relief programs announced last year. Those programs required businesses to show their prior year's revenues, and as 4296 didn't open until mid-2020, support was not available from the wage and rent subsidy programs, or relaunch grants.
In addition to the cost of opening a new business, Flann also had to invest in COVID mitigations. Masks, hand sanitizer and Plexiglass dividers were all additional costs that had to be covered.
While it has been challenging, Flann remains focused on the positive. He said things will get better, birthday parties and weddings will come back, and he is already planning a new business endeavour for an ice cream shop and speakeasy into new space next door to 4296.
"Even though it is super frustrating some days, am I going to give up? No, you have to keep pushing and doing things to reach your dreams," he said. "I am proud that Kale and I were able to go through and do it on our own."
An Uprising on Banff Avenue
When Patrik Beil began baking loaves of sourdough bread in a commercial kitchen space in Banff's industrial compound, he would go door-to-door in the surrounding neighbourhoods to sell them.
He had just left a position as a health care aide at the Mineral Springs Hospital, after taking a break from a 20-year career as a baker. He came to the Bow Valley to work with a local baker from the Czech Republic, when he decided to take a bit of hiatus from his career path.
"I must say that this work at the hospital gave me the energy I needed to open my own business," Beil said. "I realized that when I stepped out from the kitchen, how much passion I have and how much I love baking."
While he may have had some weird looks selling bread door-to-door, his reputation began to build in the community. Beil said he started to get calls from local restaurants and chefs interested in using his baked goods on their menus.
"The local support was absolutely incredible," he said. "I must say, the Bow Valley is absolutely an amazing place.
"All this great support and the hard work in the kitchen put me into the situation that the kitchen I was renting was way too small."
He found a bigger space in Banff and began to develop different products for his growing business The Uprising Craft Bakery. That led to him opening a production space in Canmore on Ninth Street. With more equipment and space, it led to even more product development and working to supply local restaurants.
He was working with upwards of 20 local establishments, including Sky Bistro, Chuck's Steakhouse, Tapas and the Iron Goat.
"All the support gave me more and more energy and the excitement to grow," Beil said. "I had the feeling like I couldn't stop and I still have that feeling."
Then COVID-19 hit, and like many others, the pandemic provided a disruption to his business model. Restaurants shut down and no longer needed the supply of freshly baked breads.
He began to question how to move forward, but with support from his life partner Kymberly Hill, he put together a home delivery program. The business was busier than ever, including the creation of a retail space in Rusticana Grocery in Canmore for his expanding selection of baked goods.
Beil said he decided that he wanted to open his own storefront bakeshop.
"I still feel like I have so much inside of me, so many new products and so many things I would like to show people in the Bow Valley that I learned while I was baking around the world," he said. "That is something that made me think about having my own store.
"One day, we were walking on Banff Avenue and I saw the sign for a beautiful space for lease. I contacted the owner of Caribou Corner and ... I got lucky – they decided to give me the space for rent."
It is a prime location and his excitement to open is clear. Beil has been developing a new menu for the storefront that offers sandwiches and baked goods, in addition to the breads he has become known for. He hopes to open on April 1.
A Remedy for stressful times
In 2018, Renee Evans opened a small business in the Bear Street Mall offering massage and facial treatments out of a one-room treatment space.
She had already been in the valley for five years working in local spas, but after receiving her permanent residency, she was inspired to start out on her own.
Evans said her goal was to focus on local clients and build a clientele – and it worked. She was able to build her reputation and saw her client list grow.
"I opened Remedy to create the job that I wanted, basically, because there wasn't really anything in the Bow Valley that ticked my needs," she said.
In March 2020, when the pandemic was declared, she was unable to offer those in-person services. Evans said she was able to deliver products to clients still, but it was a challenging time.
Once she reopened in June, however, Evans found herself fully booked for eight weeks straight. It was a sign for the small business owner if the opportunity came to expand, she would have the customers to support the move.
And the opportunity came knocking with space becoming available on the second floor of Harmony Lane, the historic building along Banff Avenue that underwent a significant upgrade and renovation over the past year-and-a-half.
It was her dream space, as a matter of fact, and Remedy Skincare and Spa grew to a three-treatment room business, with space fo a lounge overlooking Tunnel Mountain. Her team grew from two staff to seven, including a full-time receptionist, which has been a real game changer for Evans.
"I love Harmony Lane," she said. "They support local businesses and the views from upstairs are spectacular.
"I always knew this was going to be the space, but I didn't know when it was going to happen."
She took the leap of expanding her business in the middle of a pandemic. Evans was able to design the entire layout exactly as she wanted it – her vision unfolding in front of her as the renovations moved forward after she took over the space in November.
The plan was to open before Christmas, but another shutdown for massage and facial treatment services was issued by the provincial government. Once the province announced massage treatments and facials could reopen, Evans hasn't looked back and is happy she took the leap to expand her business in the midst of the pandemic.
"It was so cool to see my vision come to life," Evans said. "I want to show other people they can have a small business in town.
"You just have to have faith that things are going to return to normal. It can be hard to see the other side of this."
With stress levels for many at an all-time high due to the combined public health and economic crisis we are going through, there couldn't be a better time for a Remedy.