Stand With Owners
This is Jim's submission to the TELUS #StandWithOwners contest.
Tell us about your business, how it started, how it’s going and what you offer.
In the summer of 2019 we decided to finally open the board game cafe we had been dreaming of for 6 years.
After a long search, we finally found a location. We purchased the assets of the restaurant occupying the location in February 2020. On March 11, 2020, we signed our lease, one hour before the NBA announced the suspension of their season. Because of the investment we'd made in February and prior we felt we had to continue.
We were supposed to take possession on Good Friday and then start renovations the following week, but with everything shut down in April we had to delay until we knew what the new COVID rules would be.
Our board game cafe was always going to have a small retail section, and we felt we had to do something in the interim until we opened, so in April we decided to open our retail section online at meeples.ca using Shopify so we could start making some money, since we were now paying for rent for a space we couldn't use indefinitely. We opened our online store on April 27th, 2020. We offered pickup at our (still not renovated) location and offered free delivery inside Penticton all spring and summer.
The new COVID business operating guidelines were published in mid-May. We redid our plan to incorporate these guidelines, and finally started renovations in July 2020. During that time we invested in improved ventilation for our space, something that is now being recommended worldwide, because we knew we had to make our space safer for ourselves, our staff and our customers. We also invested over $4,000 in plexiglas dividers, because otherwise our tables would have to be 6 feet apart and because our space is small we couldn't have had enough seats to make our business viable.
We finally received our occupancy permit on September 11th. We planned to open September 14th, however on September 13th my father went to the hospital and told me he was dying. I had to go visit him in Victoria and help my mom. My dad passed away on September 24th. While I was still in Victoria, my wife and son opened our business on September 25th. I missed our grand opening!
We offer a stay-and-play board game library to our guests. They can take a game or two from our library shelves to their table and play games as long as they like with their friends for one low price. We also offer a selection of delicious house-made food like sandwiches, salads, waffles, baked goods, desserts, hot and cold drinks, and of course, our delicious namesake milkshakes. Penticton needs more venues like ours as there is a definite lack of things for families to do together here.
The reception from the community was great! Business was pretty good until November when the first restrictions were imposed which barred going to a restaurant with people from outside of your own household / pod. We lost a significant amount of revenue because of that.
The holiday season brought us a lot of retail business which was great. After the holidays, as the second wave surged, business slowed further. We limped along with reduced operating hours until March 29, 2021, when the "Circuit Breaker" restrictions were imposed in BC, which banned all indoor dining, effectively killing our board game cafe operations.
We stayed open for a few weeks for takeout but our sales were down over 75%, so we had to close our cafe on weekdays to conserve cash so our new business could survive. As a new business we are not eligible for the federal rent subsidy or the wage subsidy, so we've been shouldering these losses personally this entire time. The first help we received from the government was the Circuit Breaker Relief Grant, but that only covered about half of our losses due to the circuit breaker.
The circuit breaker restrictions ended in late May, but business has still been slow. Our cafe revenues are still down over 40% from before the November restrictions, and over 25% from before the March restrictions.
How has your business transformed this past year? How has technology played a role?
We never intended to become an online retailer, but necessity is the mother of invention so we zigged when we had to! We have learned a lot about the world of commerce, e-commerce, and the board game industry through this expanded retail endeavour. We have had to invest in our own technology skills in order to make the site successful and to make operations more efficient to make this a viable addition to our business. The result is our retail section is much larger than we ever intended it to be, and our customers love that!
We also created an online community portal using Discord to keep the board game community together and engaged during the pandemic, both while we waited for our business to open (4 months later than originally planned) and after while restrictions prevented our customers from gathering at our cafe for meetups like we'd originally planned.
We offered online board game meetups via meetup.com and hosted these sessions using our Discord server and played board games over Zoom and using various websites and apps that made remote gameplay possible. My daughter, then a software engineering student, wrote custom Discord bots for our Discord server to facilitate proposing games to play and assembling groups of players interested in playing those proposed games.
How has your business made an impact on your local community?
Penticton has very few indoor venues for entertainment, and even fewer which are family-friendly. We started this dream by starting a board game meetup in 2014, and saw it grow to over 500 members by 2020. We hosted twice-monthly meetups at Cowork Penticton and helped foster a growing community of people who enjoyed playing board games together. Many long lasting friendships have been made through this meetup group, and our dream was to continue those meetups at our board game cafe when it opened. Sadly, because of COVID, it was only last week when it became possible to host events like these!
Now that the pandemic is subsiding we plan to re-engage with Penticton, announcing board game meetups for people to find people to play games with. We also plan to finally offer D&D events and events for other games.
We have also been able to provide access to educational games to teacher and local schools at special educational pricing.
Finally, we have hired a number of people and are proud to have created jobs in this community. Our staff are great and have been so understanding through this difficult starting period for our business.
How can Canadians support owners like you?
It would be great to see people come down to our board game cafe to play games with their friends and family, and to enjoy our tasty menu of food and drink.
Spreading the word would be incredibly helpful, because our ability to market ourselves has been hampered by our stunted revenues.
Finally, please contact your MP and ask them to advocate for new small businesses to become eligible for the wage and rent subsidies, hopefully retroactively. The established businesses we compete with have had the advantage of significant financial help.