Downtown Winnipeg businesses finding ways to stay afloat as more people work from home

WINNIPEG — Business isn’t exactly booming in downtown Winnipeg.

“It’s been a lot quieter than we’re used to,” said Katie Peters, taproom and retail manager for Lake of the Woods Brewing Company’s True North Square location. 

“Back at the start of the year when we had the Jets here it was a lot busier,” said Peters. “But since March, it’s been quiet.” 

Online and pickup orders are still coming in, said Peters, but off-the-street foot traffic is significantly down. 

It’s a similar story next door at Hargrave St. Market, which includes the recently-opened Mottola Grocery.

“Hydro hasn’t returned to work and office workers are working from home,” said Bobbi Mottola, president of Academy Hospitality, which oversees Hargrave St. Market and other restaurants in Winnipeg.

“It has certainly had an impact on people coming in-store, no question.”

A recent Probe Research poll shows only 18 per cent of downtown workers are still in the area every day. That’s putting a serious strain on businesses in Winnipeg’s urban core, said Jonathan Alward, director of provincial affairs for the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses. 

“When you’re taking people out of the downtown every single day you’re obviously taking away a customer base a lot of small businesses in that area are built to serve,” said Alward. 

Businesses in Winnipeg and across Manitoba have been shifting to online and curbside pickup orders amid the pandemic and Code Red restrictions on retail. 

However, Alward said online orders don’t necessarily mean a better bottom line. 

“Ordering by phone, doing shipping, it’s very labour intensive,” said Alward. “A lot of businesses are busy but they’re at a fraction of what they’re normally seeing.”

Not every business in Winnipeg’s urban core is in dire straits. 

Bagelsmith, a Montreal-style bagel shop, exclusively filled online orders throughout the summer months. 

Come late October, Bagelsmith opened its physical storefront. Owner Phil Klein was excited to introduce more of an in-person focus to the enterprise, but only days after opening the brick-and-mortar store, Code Red restrictions came into effect in Winnipeg. 

Klein then pivoted back to his original business model. 

“When we envisioned Bagelsmith we didn’t expect to be an online bagel shop,” said Klein. 

Online orders — coupled with bulk pickup orders made by customers — are more than keeping the business afloat, said Klein.

“It’s a nice feeling but at the same time it’s not exactly what we intended to do. Kind mixed emotions but we’re lucky.”

Meanwhile, other downtown businesses are noticing a surge in support from the local Winnipeg community. 

“The community is great. Support local has really, really helped,” said Mottola. 

“Everyone I’ve talked to has been saying they want to support local,” said Peters. “Every time we bring out a pickup they’re all telling us how excited they are they’re still able to buy from us and support us.”

In the long term, however, downtown businesses may want to move away from relying on or specifically catering to office workers. 

Colin Fast, director of policy for the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, notes how many residential projects in the downtown core are still under construction. 

“We’re seeing more people move downtown,” said Fast. “So it might be a question of that retail mix shifting more towards that growing residential population than simply serving officer workers.”

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