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Starting a business in a pandemic

What may have seemed like a counter-intuitive move is paying off for local entrepreneurs

ATHABASCA — Two years ago when the world ground to a halt and everyone had to close their doors and stay home, the prospect of opening a new business may have seemed far-fetched, but several new Athabasca businesses managed to make their way up through the chaos in that time and start a few new business ventures that are proving to be quite successful. 

While the rest of us were going in circles, trying to keep track of ever changing rules and mandates, others were putting their own money on the line, and persuing their business dreams, like Doug Kariel.

“If it hadn't been a small town where there was a niche that could be filled, I don't think I would have,” said Kariel, the co-owner of Johnny’s Eatery. 

The idea for the restaurant started long before the pandemic, but the sudden loss of his wife Heather put things on hold before he pressed on with business partners John Vamvakakis and Melissa McLean. 

“The prices of things went up too, the construction and the price of some of the wood, there were definitely delays in getting material,” he said. 

Vamvakakis had been co-owner and chef at another restaurant, so came with both experience and a following of locals who liked his food. 

“And Melissa McLean, she worked in restaurants before and she ran a coffee shop here,” said Kariel. 

They finally settled on Johnny’s Eatery because Vamvakakis is the head chef, and the name evokes the casual dining atmosphere. 

“For me it's a definitely a Heather memorial project," said Kariel. “I just felt like it needed to get done for her and people were happy, and it seems to have worked.” 

The cost of construction plus the lack of banks offering start-up lending at the beginning of the pandemic hit Alyssia Strandlund too when she decided to open her chiropractic practice, Compass Chiropractic, just a few doors down from Johnny's Eatery.

“I delayed even starting anything because at the time when I got my license and would have started trying to get loans, chiropractors in Alberta were under the shutdowns,” she said. “And then whey I finally did, banks were basically, ‘We’re not lending to startups because the likelihood that you’re going to fail during a pandemic is higher than ever.’” 

So, it took her significantly longer to get the financing in place, then there was the renovation. 

“Renovations were higher because of shortages when lumber costs and everything skyrocketed,” said Strandlund. “And then there was just added costs of things like masks and different things that I never would have thought I needed, like having to change furniture, so it was easy (and) cleanable. It ended up costing me more than what I was originally anticipating.” 

Overall, it was five months later than Strandlund planned on opening and when she was finally able to, she has been consistently busy since. 

For the Ella & Birch Cooperative, both Annie Syryda of Elladora Boutique and Karen Harps of Deep in the Trees Soap Co., it was less of a risk, but no less scary moving to a brick-and-mortar store. 

Both women have an online base, Harps has been selling her small-batch, hand-made soaps on and off for almost 25 years and Syryda has run a successful online collective for almost a decade. 

“I was purchasing her handmade soap and some of her other spa products,” Syryda said of Harps. “But just recently, we kind of reconnected and did a pop-up." 

Harps broached the idea to test the waters, so they rented some unused space beside the Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy on 48th Ave and did a pop-up store for two weeks and were happy with the results. 

“I think that the way that our business plan came together, really made us feel confident that we could put up a brick-and-mortar store,” Syryda said. “We did our pop-up, and it was wildly successful for us, we got what we hoped, and we also feel that a partnership together saves costs.” 

Harps said she has noticed more collectives springing up across the country and the twist to their store is all the products are made by women in Canada. 

“Our store is a niche,” Syryda said. “There’s some things that people wouldn’t want to come and buy here however, the people who do come, I think really love it and that’s really the whole point.” 

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