LFP LONGFORM: London merchants scrambling to survive as pandemic hits six-month mark

After six months of COVID-19 lockdowns, disruptions and distancing, some London businesses are gone, others are scrambling to survive and some even starting anew. As the pandemic grinds on and commercial challenges — and casualties — mount, Norman De Bono looks at how some local firms have fared for signs of what’s changed and what may lie ahead.

Few things have changed London’s economic landscape as quickly, and severely, as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Businesses have closed, others have changed how they do business and a few brave souls have even opened or expanded. While some sectors, such as manufacturing, craft brewing, food production, building product supply and technology have seen significant growth because of coronavirus, many in the retail, food and service sectors have been hammered.

There’s no way to know how many more will close or adapt to survive as the pandemic grinds on, but the Free Press has taken a snapshot of some businesses affected by the virus crisis over the last six months as a sign of how much has changed, and an indication of what may be coming.

London Chamber of Commerce: Overview

Membership at the agency representing business in London has dropped 20 per cent, or about 250 businesses, as firms take a break from the membership-driven chamber amid the pandemic.

“Hospitality, tourism and retail, those are the ones that are hardest hit. People are reluctant to patronize now until they are safe,” said chamber chief executive Gerry Macartney.

The chamber forecasts that 30 per cent of small businesses may not survive COVID-19. And Restaurants Canada estimates up to 60 per cent of eateries nationwide may close as a result of the viral downturn.

“I have to say, so far I am impressed by how many we have managed to retain,” said Macartney.

Downtown London: Closings and openings

Perhaps no area of the city has been more affected by COVID than the city’s core.

Several businesses have closed, but even more have opened or are planning to, said Barbara Maly, executive director of Downtown London, the core merchants group.

Downtown business casualties so far include Laser Quest on Carling Street, Origins Coffee, and Pub on Richmond on Richmond Street, Tea Valley on Dundas Street, BTM Fitness on Clarence Street and Susan J Fashions on Oxford Street. Lofthouse Living have moved and are selling online now.

“We were preparing for closures and vacancies and there are certainly more coming,” said Maly. “But there are more that are opening or expanding and pivoting.”

Among the new entrants since March: Garfield Eats on Central Avenue, Lazezz Shawarma, Katsu Express and La Cucina restaurants on Richmond, Haven Home Décor, an as-yet unnamed Lebanese restaurant in the Talbot Centre, Whale Bubble Tea, Kahari Grill and Gup Shup restaurants on Dundas, Amour home décor store on York Street, Frank & Furters gourmet hot dog spot on King Street, BoFIT on Clarence and ChickPz on King Street.

Argyle Mall: Closings

The east London shopping plaza has turned notions of COVID-19’s retail impacts upside down: large, chain businesses have closed, while smaller independent retailers — both in the mall and east London — are hanging on, said Randy Sidhu, executive director of the Argyle Business Improvement Area.

Reitman’s, Moore’s and Hallmark stores have all shut down, he said.

“Our first thought was that independents will be hurt and corporate will do well, but it has been the other way around,” said Sidhu. “It has been very positive for the independents, but we are anticipating there will be more closings in the new few months.”

Chopped Leaf: Opening

The new healthy eatery opened on Wellington Road after owner Bette Creek got tired of waiting, having planned the new business before the pandemic.

“We were going to open before, but everything was put on hold. We have designed  our store now to be socially distanced, people can eat apart and we have a patio,” said Creek. “I think people feel a little more comfortable going out now, we are more aware of trying to keep safe. We know a lot more now.”

Open only about a week she has been busy and customers are coming in and telling her they want to support a new business.

“People seem thankful we are here,” she said.

The franchise operation opened in B.C. 10 years ago.

Mother Moose: Pivoting

A children’s clothing store, which also held craft days for kids, closed its Hyde Park location as the pandemic hit, said owner Mandi Hurst. It’s now a home-based business, focused on COVID-related products like lanyards for children’s masks, that offers home delivery

“We have done a huge pivot,” Hurst said. “It was a tough decision, but in March we decided to close and in April we were out of our store. We had traction in the community, we had foot traffic, but it did not make sense.”

J.S. Ryan and Co: Opening

Ryan Ford opened his barbershop and hair salon at Ridout and Chester streets in July, not letting COVID interfere with plans he’d begun before the pandemic arrived.

“Things were in motion and then suddenly the pandemic happened, but it did not stop us at all,” said Ford. “What solidified it for me is when I saw people protesting they could not get their hair cut.”

There was also “a lot of excitement” in the area, with people asking when they’d open.

“It’s been overwhelming, the support in the neighbourhood.”

AK Arts Academy: Closing

After seven years in business, the Hyde Park music, drama and dance school closed in May because of the virus crisis.

“The government aid for small business came with several stipulations and my business model just didn’t meet those requirements,” said Kane, who now now offers one-on-one music lessons.

“A lot of small businesses have to be creative in how they deliver their products and services, in order to survive. Rarely does this fit into the government’s framework of who deserves financial aid.”

Zaatarz Bakery: Expanding

Opened a second location on Adelaide Street, growing from its original Southdale Road site to offer Middle Eastern baked goods.

“It is hard opening in a pandemic. But we had a lease done and plans were in place and permits. We could not back out. It was too late,” said Nadia Fayad, part-owner of the two bakeries.

The city helped by allowing renovations on the space to finish after the corona lockdown, citing the bakery as an essential service, she added.

Bowlerama: Closing

Unable to come back after being shuttered by COVID-19, London’s Bowlerama Royale closed for good.

The Dundas Street bowling alley could have reopened in late July, but that made little sense with occupancy limited to 50 bowlers, and only a few players likely to return, said owner Brenda Dottermann.

Annual sales had been strong in the five years since Dottermann bought Bowlerama, which opened in 1992, but that all changed with COVID-19. Bowling alleys are uniquely challenged by the pandemic because they are big, rent and maintenance are costly and they rely on steady player traffic to survive.

Paradigm Spirits: Opening

Of all the openings amid the pandemic this has to be one of the more ambitious.

The distillery aims to open Thanksgiving weekend, at the former Kellogg plant site, offering its own vodka, whiskey and gin. It plans to serve cocktails on the patio it shares with Powerhouse Brewery and will have some indoor seating. It is also planning events and theme nights, said co-owner Irma Joeveer.

“We will open our retail store where we will sell spirits, we will host small pop-up events, brunch on Sundays and we will have events like a women and whiskey night,” she said.

With 5,000 square feet of space, enough to host about 65 in a socially distanced way, Joeveer is confident they can open safely.

“We have worked very hard to build this distillery over three years,” and simply did not want to wait longer, she said.

“We have a number of followers and friends eagerly awaiting Paradigm. We feel an obligation to bring our spirits to the market. I don’t know when there will be a better time.”

Scholars Choice: Closing

The coronavirus pandemic forced Scholar’s Choice co-owners Scott and Cindy Webster to make a painful decision much sooner than they’d expected.

Canada’s largest and oldest seller of educational toys, teaching materials and children’s furniture filed for creditor protection and announced it would close all but three locations in a bid to restructure and focus on online sales.

Chief executive Scott Webster said the COVID-19 shutdown has had a catastrophic effect on the retail sector and Scholar’s Choice was no exception. With fewer brick-and-mortar locations, the London-based company will be better positioned when the economy fully reopens, he hopes.

Scholar’s Choice closed its last local store in north London in April.

Little Bird and El Poco Lobo: Closing and opening

The Little Bird, a Wortley Village breakfast joint owned and operated by local restaurateurs Gregg and Justin Wolfe, shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But they opened a new eatery, El Poco Lobo, on site.

“We’ve been put into a difficult position with COVID-19,” Justin Wolfe said of the decision to close after only a year in business. “We don’t really like to let anything go that we’ve ever invested in and we love The Little Bird, but it comes down to numbers and what’s going to be able to keep our heads above water.”

The brothers are transforming the Little Bird into a scaled-down, takeout-friendly version of their popular Los Lobos Mexican restaurant on Talbot Street, he said.

Tech Sector

London Economic Development Corp.’s website,


, lists 55 technology businesses in the city that are hiring, seeking nearly 200 workers. Some have several openings, including one with 20 jobs listed. The more people are at home, the more they are online, driving demand in literally every sector of tech business, including 3M, Big Blue Bubble, Canada Life, Diply, GoodLife, McCormicks Canada and Start.ca.


The LEDC also has a site for industrial jobs,


, which lists 27 industries looking for more than 100 workers, including Labatt Breweries, Masco, Magna, Trojan, 3M and Dr. Oetker.

New biz

The pandemic has not stopped the opening of new industry. Since March, the city and LEDC have announced Anvo Pharma, a generic drug manufacturer, Aspire Foods, a food production company, Quest Brands, a landscape material company and Dionas Metals would be coming to London. All bought land and are opening plants here.



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