“We are already seeing an uptick in business”: How a Toronto café owner feels after two years of restrictions

“We are already seeing an uptick in business”: How a Toronto café owner feels after two years of restrictions

Photo courtesy of Alex Castellani

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After two years of pivots, digital transformations and endless maneuvering to stay afloat, many in the restaurant industry—and lots of us, in general—are feeling discombobulated as things begin to reopen. (For good this time, we pray.) The pandemic has changed things in profound ways, from business models to physical footprints, and what may have made sense in 2019 now seems like a relic of a bygone time.

At the start of the pandemic, Boxcar Social was a growing chain of cafés and community hubs where people would congregate over coffee and wine. Now, its business has branched into wine imports, coffee roasting and e-commerce. Which is the real Boxcar Social? Here co-owner Alex Castellani explains the difficulties of figuring that out.

—As told to Kate Dingwall

“To be honest, it’s hard to remember what normal even feels like at this point.

“Before the pandemic, we were dealing with the challenges of running five cafés and wine bars across the city. We had big plans for all of them, but with the onslaught of Covid, we had to focus on our pivots. We began importing wine, and fast-tracked a coffee roasting company we were already working on, Subtext Coffee Roasters. We developed and expanded bottle shops at all of our locations, which now take up so much room that we’ve had to wholly reconfigure some of our locations. After two years, these pivots are who we are.

“We were lucky to have a diversified business, with an e-commerce component and online coffee and wine sales that allowed us to continue to bring in some revenue during the most trying moments. We doubled down on our online engagement—Shopify for online ordering, Instagram and email mail-outs for promotion.

“The shift to digital was costly in so many ways. We already had some digital infrastructure in place prior to the pandemic, but going completely online came with a few twists—things like Shopify monthly charges and an automatic processing fee of two or three per cent on all credit card orders. It also meant offering delivery—that’s extra materials in terms of boxes and labels at a time where paper costs are sky-high. Of course, we also had to get a functional website that delivered the kind of guest experience we hoped to deliver in our physical shops. That takes designers and programmers—not necessarily skill sets that are abundant in a hospitality company.

“But money aside—as everyone knows by now, whether from Zoom fatigue or online schooling—the online space has its challenges. In person, you can focus on your product and service. With e-commerce, there’s a much more implicit pay-to-play component: competing in the digital space means going up against global companies, many of which have used vast sums of money on SEO and digital marketing.

“Of course, the skills it takes to communicate to and look after guests in a bricks-and-mortar operation are not the same as those required to take care of guests online. We work with products that may be obscure, have limited information on their labels, or are part of emerging industries. Often, the sales of these products require more explanation.

“Most coffee roasters employ generous tasting notes, but not all coffees actually deliver the promises of “tropical fruit” or “bergamot.” These overly generous descriptions have moved the goal-post—many customers either don’t believe those tasting notes or disregard them altogether when purchasing, which makes it difficult when you have coffees that actually do deliver. The nuances, tastes, and aromas of coffee are so hard to communicate on a platform like Shopify

“It puts even more pressure on our staff, too.

Inside Boxcar’s Rosedale shop (Photo by Daniel Neuhaus)

“Day to day, we are confronted with having to hit minimums from suppliers. We also are tasked with keeping staff hopeful and engaged at a time of pervasive exhaustion. They’re tired. Tired of the lack of stability, the lack of predictability, and the lack of human contact.

“The fatigue is real. January and February are already slow months—the difference now is the layer of existential threat. Compounding on last year’s lockdowns, these are testing moments. Not to mention an additional layer of uncertainty as to what new shutdown or drastic drop in demand is around the corner.

“If there’s one silver lining with all of the pivoting we’ve done, it’s that the scramble to figure out what to do next no longer exists. Instead, the focus is on staying engaged with our values, goals and objectives.

“One Harbourfront café is in a tourist-heavy area. That location was already incredibly challenging pre-Covid because of its seasonal nature. But we spent some of our downtime renovating the location to update both its aesthetic and service model, to make it brighter and cleaner-feeling, while creating more intimate pockets for people to take refuge in. We knew there would be an end to the pandemic. An important survival mechanism for us has been focusing on where we want to be when we get there.

“With capacity restrictions lifting, we are already seeing an uptick in business across all our locations. We are optimistic, but will continue to do everything we can to keep our team and community safe while setting up our business to be stronger, more resilient and more adaptive.

“And we continue to be hopeful. Running a small business is a challenging job. Covid isn’t the first challenge we faced, and it won’t be the last. If that means working even harder to survive, that’s a fight well worth the struggle. We won’t be so naive to think this is the end, but we will take advantage of every unobstructed moment.”