The local business perspective on COVID-19

By Cassandra Pegg, Special to Brome County News

President of the Brome-Missisquoi chamber of commerce (CCBM) Philip Dion met with Brome County News recently to discuss the challenges and successes of local businesses during this time.
The biggest difficulty he has seen businesses face is the process of adapting. Businesses in the area have had to make big changes in the way they run things to accommodate strict government regulations, changing consumer needs and the uncertainty of the future, elaborated Dion. A local example of this is Lynne Matthews, owner of La Vie Sucrée in Knowlton, who is operating on a new opening schedule that excludes Mondays and Tuesdays to reflect the flow of customers.
Richard Pilon, owner of Star Café in Knowlton, shared some of the difficulties that restaurants are facing during this time. According to Pilon, the cost of producing food has increased significantly. Salaries have also increased with the minimum wage going up, added the restaurant owner, so he has had to dig more and more from the profits to cover the costs of staying open.
Still, CCBM President Dion explained, while some companies are seeing a loss of customers and profits, others are benefitting from the stay at home order. Garden stores are doing quite well for example. Suzanne and Chantel Lafleur, the mother-daughter operation that runs Les Serres Lafleur in Foster, are pleased with the volume of clients coming through their greenhouses. Suzanne Lafleur explained that the demand for garden crops, herbs and flowers has been even higher this year than previous years. She attributed this to the fact that the people who normally take vacations during the summer are forced to stay home. Often people would not plant anything because they would be gone for two weeks at a time, but now everyone is looking out at their yards and seeing possibilities for improvement. She added that people had more time than usual in the spring to put in gardens or flowerbeds and both women reported that the peak of customers came much earlier this year than usual.
Chantal Lafleur reported that there were “record sales for herbs since people aren’t going out to eat” and were avoiding grocery stores in the beginning as well. Suzanne did question whether this boost will be a one-time thing, however, since people who do not usually put in a garden or flower beds will by now be made aware of how much work maintaining them is.
CCBM president Dion speculated that while there have been some local business closures due to COVID-19, it might be a problem that will persist into the medium and long-term future. He reasoned that there is a lot of uncertainty about the future of the pandemic and how it will continue to impact commerce. If there is a second or third wave, he continued, businesses that survived the first round might find themselves struggling to stay afloat again. Matthews of La Vie Sucrée revealed that once the lockdown lifted on May 4 there were days where she would not have a single customer. Knowlton is a tourist town, she explained, with people coming from places like Vermont, New Hampshire or New York State. This year it is very unlikely that the village will be getting tourists from the US or anywhere else. She went further to say that if there are subsequent waves in the Fall, her Christmas season will be under fire and it will be difficult to keep the business going. Pilon of Star Café expressed his concerns of losing a lot of the summer profit brought in by tourists. Profit, he explained, that would normally have helped them get through the slower winter season. Without it, Star Café is very much in danger of shutting its doors.
There may be a silver lining to this difficult situation. Dion of the CCBM explained that one of the most important things to come out of the pandemic is the buy-local initiative. He stressed the importance of supporting local businesses and explained that people are really accepting the idea of perhaps paying a bit more in order to support people from their own communities. Matthews of La Vie Sucrée expressed gratitude to her regular customers who have largely kept her business going in these times. A big part of the struggle now, according to Pilon of Star Café, is keeping the names of local businesses fresh in the minds of the residents, making sure no one forgets about these crucial restaurants and stores.
Dion explained that it is difficult to know the effects of the pandemic on local business in the long term but that he is sure that owners will need to continue to diversify and reinvent themselves. Community support is the backbone of local business and Matthews, Pilon and the Lafleur’s are some of the hardworking owners that benefit directly from that support.

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