COVID-19, a bad economy, changing habits: the struggles Whyte Avenue faced the last few years

Like everywhere else in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Whyte Avenue area hard. But the Edmonton entertainment district was struggling before March 2020.

The area has always been an attractive one for business, but that causes the rent to go up, making it difficult for smaller businesses to utilize those spaces.

“We’ve seen some larger chains and things like that move in because they tend to be the the ones that can afford some of that rent,” Cherie Klassen, executive director of the Old Strathcona Business Association said. “But, unfortunately, a lot of the large chains and franchises don’t do well here.”

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Read more: Edmonton Chapters store on Whyte Ave closing its doors Oct. 26

Over the last few years, the avenue has lost multiple Starbucks and Second Cup locations. A Dairy Queen, David’s Tea and the massive Chapters store on the corner of Whyte Avenue and 105 Street also closed.

Once the pandemic hit, Army and Navy, the largest space on the street, also made the decision to close its doors.

Click to play video: 'Army & Navy to close permanently amid COVID-19 pandemic' Army & Navy to close permanently amid COVID-19 pandemic

Army & Navy to close permanently amid COVID-19 pandemic – May 9, 2020

Many “for rent” signs appear in storefronts along the avenue, making the once vibrant street feel empty.

“The pandemic hit and it was not a good place for business owners to be,” Klassen said. “It would have been different if this was in the 90s when things were roaring down here.”

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“But I think the piece we did hear pretty strongly from businesses that we went into this not very strong.”

Jeff Nachtigall is one of the directors of Sugared and Spiced, a small bakery in the back alley off 103 Street and 83 Avenue.

He’s lived in the area almost 30 years and has seen Whyte Avenue go through a number of transition phases, but this was the first one he was a part of as a business owner.

The Sugared & Spiced bakery has been forced to pivot several times during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kirby Bourne/630 CHED

His shop specialized in massive cakes and baked goods, from pepperoni and bacon hand pies, to brownies and cookies to meringues the size of your head.

Business had been good, especially during the month of the annual Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, but as the economy struggled, that changed.

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“We noticed at the end of 2019, before the pandemic, we were losing out on some of those smaller regular purchases,” he said.

“So we had started shifting our focus at the beginning of 2020, maybe the end of 2019, where to focus our energy more because we were still new, we are still trying to figure out what kinds of things we should be making and selling.”

So while Nachtigall’s shop was already in the middle of a pivot, they were forced to pivot again in a different direction in March 2020.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton bakery temporarily shuts its doors in order to try and stay open long-term' Edmonton bakery temporarily shuts its doors in order to try and stay open long-term

Edmonton bakery temporarily shuts its doors in order to try and stay open long-term – Aug 28, 2020

On one hand, Nachtigall says the second pivot was, in some ways, a blessing. It gave the shop the push to go in the direction it eventually would have needed to go to survive.

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They set up online ordering, figured out what kind of baked goods people’s eating habits were shifting toward, and scaled back their cake operation to focus on smaller cakes for smaller gatherings.

But when the world shuts down and your shop counts on festivals in the area during the summer months, the toll can be heavy.

“We went from our busiest month and our best revenue in 2019, was our worst month by far in 2020,” he said of the month of August. “And at the end of it we were like, ‘is it worth a month that costs us money to work 60 hours a week?’”

Read more: Edmonton bakery temporarily shuts its doors in order to try and stay open long-term

The shop closed for a week while the owners decided what they wanted to do to. And they shifted again.

To avoid having to close permanently, they shifted away from walk-in traffic and focused on pre-orders instead, but Nachtigall says they were close to closing up for good.

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“We just built the place all on loaned money three-and-a-half years ago. So we clearly and obviously have a debt that we’re paying back right now.

“Breaking even is one thing, but going further into debt isn’t an option.”

Click to play video: 'Longtime businesses in Edmonton forced to permanently close due to COVID-19' Longtime businesses in Edmonton forced to permanently close due to COVID-19

Longtime businesses in Edmonton forced to permanently close due to COVID-19 – May 10, 2020

Vivid Print has been been open on Whyte Avenue since 2009. Co-owner Mark Wilson has also watched the avenue go through a number of transitions, but said he hasn’t seen a year tougher on the area than 2020 was.

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“Prior to the pandemic, the provincial economy was certainly hurting in 2019, and there were a number of independent operators who were in the stages of wrapping up business or retiring or so forth,” Wilson said. “So we were seeing a bit of a shift. So there was a bit of available inventory, but we still weren’t at a situation that we see today.”

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When the provincial shutdown was put in place in March 2020, Vivid Print closed its doors. Wilson said they were lucky to already have had an online presence, and their biggest pivot was to figure out how to implement curbside pickup.

He says they noticed a downward decline in sales, but in talking with their neighbours, realized it mirrored what others were going through.

Click to play video: 'A push for more space as Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue opens for business' A push for more space as Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue opens for business

A push for more space as Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue opens for business – May 14, 2020

When retail locations began opening up again though, Vivid Print kept its doors closed. With the exception of a few months last summer when COVID-19 numbers were low, customers haven’t been in the shop.

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“When we first opened the shop up again, we were actually kind of uncomfortable because, you know, this was a space where we felt safe because it was just us in here. We’re fine. So that was an adjustment going back,” Wilson said. 

“We are in a kind of a coasting mode. We’re nowhere close to where we should be.”

Read more: Shoppers urged to buy local to help Alberta small businesses during COVID-19 holiday season

While Klassen says she’s been impressed with how many businesses have pivoted and how they’ve done so over the last year, the reality is the business association has work to do to help the avenue revitalize.

“We are working really hard as a business association, with business recruitment and retention strategies, to to get us back to a place of where we were,” she said. 

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“That is something that we are working very hard at over the next couple of years to to try to get us back to a stronger space.”

This is Part 1 of two looking at the struggles and success of Whyte Avenue before, during and after the pandemic. 

Watch for Part 2: “‘It’s the heart of the city’: Despite a tough year, optimism wins on Whyte Avenue” to be published Sunday morning.

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