After one year as the owner of a downtown Winnipeg bagel shop during a pandemic, Phil Klein feels fortunate to have found some success.
He also hopes his first year in business is the worst one he ever experiences.
On Oct. 21, 2020, Bagelsmith opened at 185 Carlton St., several months after its pre-pandemic lease was finalized. On Nov. 2, Winnipeg officially entered code red on the province's pandemic-response scale and restaurants were forced to close to in-person business.
That meant Klein couldn’t rely on normal foot traffic, as downtown office workers were again urged to stay home as much as possible.
"It’s been a challenging year to say the least, specifically with it being our first. I’m hoping this is the worst it’s ever going to be," he said.
Klein stressed he’s been lucky to sell his bagels at more than 20 grocery stores and attract loyal customers who treat his shop as a destination.
But he certainly hasn’t been able to follow his initial business plan, which relied on a large supply of downtown workers becoming customers.
“It’s been a challenging year to say the least, specifically with it being our first. I’m hoping this is the worst it’s ever going to be." — Phil Klein
"A lot of people open businesses downtown specifically to (serve) people downtown... the only thing consistent about being open in downtown right now is that it’s inconsistent," said Klein, noting demand still fluctuates wildly each day.
That’s in part due to the fact few office workers commute to the city centre every weekday. Just 24 per cent of employees who worked downtown prior to the pandemic have now returned to do so full time as of last month, according to the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone.
Obby Khan, who reopened the Graham Avenue location of his Shawarma Khan restaurant last Thursday, said he’s "very optimistic" more downtown workers will return over the next few months.
With sales now less than half pre-pandemic levels at the Graham location, Khan expects the return of office workers will play a major role in the area’s economic recovery.
"It’s vital for all businesses downtown.... It is absolutely critical that they come back to work or we might be a couple restaurants lighter when this is all done," he said.
Some companies have brought their office staff back downtown already, including commercial real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield Stevenson.
“It’s vital for all businesses downtown.... It is absolutely critical that they come back to work or we might be a couple restaurants lighter when this is all done." — Shawarma Khan owner Obby Khan on the return of downtown workers over the next few months
"We’re a locally owned company. We’ve always believed that a strong downtown is reflective of a strong city," said Carly Edmundson, the company’s senior vice-president.
Staff gradually returned this summer, with the company’s full workforce back at the office by Sept. 1, she said.
Edmundson said the workspace ensures six feet of separation is always possible and all staff are required to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 1, measures that helped ensure employees could return safely.
"Vaccinations were the turning point, in terms of having more ability to bring people back and feel confident in that decision," she said.
The overall return of downtown workers has been far slower than expected, according to the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.
"It’s the no. 1 issue we hear from small businesses downtown. So many small business owners are crossing their fingers hoping that workers are going to be coming back," said Kate Fenske, the organization’s chief executive officer.
This spring, Fenske said the BIZ expected most workers would return downtown by fall, a target some businesses have now extended to early 2022.
Fenske said the unpredictable nature of the pandemic has magnified the need to attract residential construction in the city centre.
"We can’t rely on downtown workers alone to be the primary customer base of businesses downtown. That’s why boosting the residential population downtown is so critical," she said.
Since the start of 2020, 70 businesses have closed and 34 new ones have opened in the overall Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone, she noted.
“We can’t rely on downtown workers alone to be the primary customer base of businesses downtown. That’s why boosting the residential population downtown is so critical." — Downtown Winnipeg BIZ CEO Kate Fenske
Both the BIZ and Economic Development Winnipeg have urged the City of Winnipeg to ensure its own downtown staff return to their offices as soon as possible.
Coun. Scott Gillingham, the city’s finance chairperson, noted most councillors and political staff now frequently work at city hall. He expects municipal staff will also be expected to follow that advice soon.
"There should be a clear understanding that we need to lead by example as a city and have our employees back in our office setting where possible," said Gillingham.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.