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Geneviève Bétournay. Photo: Kelly McDonald.

Reopening a small business in the 613: The Art House Café

By John McDonald on June 25, 2020

Running a business is seldom a walk in the park. It’s more like juggling blindfolded while riding a unicycle uphill in a severe wind. For good measure, let’s throw in a pandemic.

We all have personal stories of how life has changed since mid-March, and we’re aware that the economy has taken a hard hit. Slowly, and with caution, we’re getting the go-ahead to open more businesses.

So how have local businesses been impacted by the lockdown, and by the movement to a phase that allows reopening? We spoke with the owners of three 613 businesses, each with their own unique situations. Today: The Art House Cafe.

In a heritage house on Somerset Street West sits a hub of creativity. The Art House Cafe is a fully functioning art gallery, performance venue, and cafe. Owner Geneviève Bétournay sees its mission as spreading the positive everyday impact of art by making art and art resources more accessible.

“Everything we do celebrates creativity and collaboration.”

In this third and final look at reopening local small businesses, Geneviève tell us about reopening a shop that connects Ottawa-based visual artists, musicians, and craftspeople with each other and with a community of people who appreciate their work.

The Art House Café. Photo: Kelly McDonald.

Geneviève Bétournay:

There were so many decisions that had to be made in the first few days following the doors being closed. And so many questions. Who needs to be contacted and what do we tell them? There was our staff, our customers, ticket holders, artists and musicians, suppliers, and creditors. How do we handle the various scheduled events, the tickets already purchased, and the bookings already made? What suppliers and services (garbage collection, linen service, etc.) do we cut or reduce?

There was also the financial side. How to use what money the business had? What payments could or should be deferred? Where should we look for aid or relief? What should we set up or take down onsite for an extended closure?

That being said, the decisions for how Art House might be able to operate during the pandemic, to whatever degree, came much later. After the initial wave of necessary notifications, I spent a lot of time just observing, taking in information, and trying to process the situation and all the emotions that came with it.

It took me a long time to figure out what we would be able to do as far as offering services during lockdown. For over a month after the closure, we did not offer any services, and only provided a small amount of them until we first opened for takeout in early June. I was basing these decisions on factors such as the assets, resources, and inventory we had at our disposal, and what could continue to help us in the long run rather than just help us get through the closure. What had we sold in the past? And what is our brand?

Pickup window at Art House Café. Photo: Kelly McDonald.

And possibly most importantly, what were our limitations? I would say it was primarily my physical capacity and high risk that made me avoid doing something like takeout or substantial food or drink resale. For a while, those did not make sense for us (energy/time put in vs. financial gains), and they would have greatly increased my potential exposure to the virus. We also of course did not want to contribute to the spread of the virus.

Toward the end of April, we put our entire gallery online. This would allow us to continue supporting artists while reaching a greater number of people. The pickup and delivery logistics also meant a lower risk and probability of exposure.

In early May, we announced that we were bottling and making available for pickup or delivery many of our house-made vegan syrups and sauces. Repackaging these products as The Fantastic Flavours of Art House meant rapid and efficient production, as well as relatively easy handling, and we sold them alongside bags of coffee and various pastries.

While art sales continued online, and we saw some interest for our bottled and jarred goods, it became apparent that these revenue streams would not sustain the business alone, and that most of our customers simply wanted takeout. After seeing Ottawa case counts reach low double digits, and then drop to consistent single digits, we decided we would open for takeout starting June 4.

Physical distancing signage at The Art House Café. Photo: Kelly McDonald.

I was unquestionably apprehensive about doing this. As a space that has the potential to interact with a large number of people, the thought of potentially aggravating the pandemic is not a comfortable one. My business should not survive at the cost of human lives, and I had concerns for our staff and community–I did not want to risk harm coming to any of them! And for the reasons mentioned above, I wanted to minimize my potential exposure.

As time went on, I definitely felt like my hand was being forced. For a few reasons, I was and am not currently in the best position to personally support the business financially for very long without it operating. Businesses can chomp through money pretty quickly, including when they’re not open. And so, even with aid, the point where you run out of money seems to approach rather quickly if almost nothing is coming in.

Something that really made me try to hurry up and find solutions was knowing that it’s not just about surviving a two- or three-month closure—we have to make ends meet for the 12 months (or more?) beyond those, after having lost a substantial amount of money and with all kinds of factors potentially limiting our revenue. I think that that might end up being the hardest part for many businesses.

Geneviève Bétournay of The Art House Café. Photo: Kelly McDonald.

As for the reopening, there were many things to consider and to put into place. We keep an eye out for the presence of symptoms in our team members, and have staff check their temperature before the start of every shift. There is sanitizer for hands and surfaces everywhere. Hand and surface cleaning take place regularly, while especially stringent hand-washing, mask-wearing and surface-cleaning policies exist for our food and customer interaction areas.

We’re using a window takeout service and at this time, no customers can enter inside except for washroom use and scheduled gallery viewings. We have procedures for allowing customers inside that include spraying hands with sanitizer.

Keeping distance, staying safe. Photo: Kelly McDonald.

We’ve added markings and signage to aid in maintaining physical distance, as well as directions to help with customer flow. Since our very understanding landlord has allowed us to extend our patio to the driveway, we’ve had to acquire or make ready more furniture and supplies, and put up some fencing. All tables allow for physical distancing between groups, have sanitizer for customers, and get cleaned on a regular basis.

We’ve had to adjust our opening days. and hours, and will likely continue to do so as the situation evolves. At this time, we’re open for takeout and the patio Thursdays to Sundays.

I’ve found it to be pretty intense working and making decisions in the middle of so much uncertainty, especially in the first few days of reopening. It means that every day has its own set of challenges and things to assess and figure out. It demands a lot of adaptability under pressure. Not always the most fun! Hah. It’s been a lot of work and a bit of a roller coaster, but we know that our extra efforts are going into setting up new systems, and we’ve been encouraged by the progress we’ve made so far.

Open for Takeout. Photo: Kelly McDonald.

I’m still slightly nervous. I will be as long as the virus is out there and we are susceptible to it. Helps keep us on our toes though!

I feel very grateful for all our staff. They’ve shown a lot of dedication by coming in to work in this unusually demanding environment. They’ve also been incredibly helpful in the establishment of proper procedures and the development of the project in this new phase.

There is a magical moment every time we see friends from the community for the first time since the closure. These are often people that we had been seeing on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, and who have developed quite a rapport with members of our staff. It’s pure joy and incredibly heartwarming to see these human connections light up like fireworks! It’s been nice to feel once again the energy that the people bring to Art House!

The Art House Cafe is located at 555 Somerset Street West. Visit their website or find them on Facebook and Instagram