Sing for your supper (and small business survival)


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When a global pandemic forces you to shutter your business, sometimes the only logical thing to do is sing like no one is watching.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/04/2020 (1025 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When a global pandemic forces you to shutter your business, sometimes the only logical thing to do is sing like no one is watching.

That’s what a Winnipeg coffee shop owner is doing, except in this case, a lot of fans are tuning in on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram because they can’t get enough of his off-key warbling and awkward dance moves.

Geordie Wilson, owner of San Vito Coffee House (2293 Portage Ave.) began posting his thrice-weekly “Kitchen Karaoke” music videos as a quirky way to lift spirits and boost sales.

“We’ve done everything from Jimmy Buffet to AC/DC to Neil Diamond to Shania Twain,” said Wilson, 54. “It’s an eclectic range of music. We’re just having fun with it and trying to put smiles on people’s faces. The message we’re putting out is: just have some fun.

“I’m a terrible singer and a remotely effective entertainer. Honestly, if I was a good singer, we wouldn’t get the same bang for the buck.”

It would be fair to say Wilson, also a longtime teacher at Winnipeg’s Technical Vocational High School, is to singing what U.S. President Donald Trump is to international diplomacy.

However, Wilson — a former University of Manitoba Bisons football player and current head coach of the Winnipeg Rifles junior football squad — tackles each Kitchen Karaoke video with reckless abandon and unbridled joy.

On Friday morning, clad in a Winnipeg Blue Bombers T-shirt, the well-muscled business owner parked himself behind the counter at San Vito — which is now restricted by pandemic measures to takeout and delivery — and launched into his 14th music video: a leather-lunged, hip-swivelling version of the theme song from the iconic 1960s animated TV series The Flintstones.

“When you’re at San Vito / You’ll have a yabba dabba doo time / A dabba doo time / You’ll have a great old time!” he roared, flinging his arms wide as barista Janessa Wirth (who handles social media for the coffee shop) recorded the performance on her iPhone before posting it.

It’s partly about boosting sales, but it’s mostly about offering a little bit of humour at a time when his customers — and everyone else around the world — are worried about the threat the novel coronavirus outbreak poses to health and jobs.

The song parodies — usually nailed in one take, with lyrics tweaked to promote the family-run coffee shop — have become must-see viewing for social-media users trapped at home and aching for off-the-wall entertainment.

Gushed one Twitter user: “Geordie, you’re a star. Rock on with your own bad self.”

Offered another: “I think he’s getting better at this singing thing — perhaps a role for post-retirement.”

The upbeat reaction to low-brow crooning has delighted and surprised the teacher/coach/small-business owner.

San Vito Coffee House owner Geordie Wilson has covered artists ranging from AC/DC to Shania Twain on his Kitchen Karaoke videos. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

“I’m shocked,” the father of two said with a laugh. “Honestly, I’m shocked. We put it out to have some fun and it’s snowballed. Our followers on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook have jumped up quite a bit.

“It’s really been kind of humbling. I didn’t think we were making a difference, but people are saying thanks for the energy shot. Every time we pump out a song, we always get a pop in sales. I’m not sure if people feel sorry for me. Whatever it is, we’re going to keep doing it.”

On a recent trip to pick up supplies at a wholesaler on Ellice Avenue, another shopper strolled over. “He finished his transaction and wandered up to me and said, ‘Hey, man, what you are doing is fantastic! Don’t stop!’”

Wilson’s online music career began shortly after the coronavirus arrived in town.

“We started doing a parody of Macho Man by the Village People because we had just introduced a matcha latte,” he said, “and people liked it (the video). So we decided, let’s do another, and then another.”

The restrictions imposed by the rapidly spreading virus forced him to lay off about half of his eight-member staff, but he’s hopeful San Vito will weather the storm and reopen for in-store dining.

“When it started, our sales were down about 70 per cent,” Wilson said. “Now, we’re scraping back up. We’re about 20 per cent down now from where we would normally be.

“We’re just treading water with our nose just out of the water right now. If it doesn’t get too wavy, we’ll be OK. We are really thankful to our loyal customers who have continued to order from us.”

His wife, Jill Wilson, who was busy cooking takeout orders Friday morning, smiled and laughed when asked whether she had married her humble husband because of his unique singing ability.

“Geordie has never met a microphone he didn’t like,” she quipped. “He’s trying to help our business… but he’s really enjoying himself.

“He’s not a great singer, but God bless him because he’s not afraid to put himself out there, and he’s not afraid to be embarrassed.”

Geordie Wilson and his wife Jill Wilson, inside their Portage Avenue coffee shop. Even Jill admits her husband is not a great singer. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)
Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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