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St. John’s and metro area businesses feeling economic impact of COVID-19

Scott Hillyer, owner of Coffee Matters, says the past couple days have been emotional, as he’s had to make the hard decision of laying off much of his staff. The decision comes after a couple bad years economically, lost sales due to snowstorms and the state of emergency and now uncertainty caused by Covid-19. Andrew Waterman/The Telegram
Scott Hillyer, owner of Coffee Matters, says the past couple days have been emotional, as he’s had to make the hard decision of laying off much of his staff. The decision comes after a couple bad years economically, lost sales due to snowstorms and the state of emergency and now uncertainty caused by Covid-19. Andrew Waterman/The Telegram

Reduction in sales from days closed causing uncertainty about future

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

On Tuesday, Scott Hillyer sat in the Mount Pearl location of his business, Coffee Matters, hesitating to hit submit on his payroll. He wanted to make sure to do everything he could so his employees would not have to wait to get paid.

“As of right now, I’m looking at laying off 10 more employees,” he said. “We have a crew of over 85. We’re going to be down to — probably, within the next day or so — 12 to 14.”

As governments and health authorities continue to issue statements cautioning the public about the spread of COVID-19, the company is faced with tough decisions.

“One decision was made for us this past Friday when the (Paradise Double Ice Complex) closed in Paradise,” he said.

Coffee Matters had to shut down its location in that building, laying off all 12 employees in the process.


We have been meeting all day with our staff and we are sad to announce the following details for our cafes. Please read our press statement

Posted by Coffee Matters on Tuesday, March 17, 2020

“I was very upset and losing sleep over all this, but you know what? It’s a case of circumstance,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do to change any of it.”

Friday was the first time the company has had to lay off anyone since opening its first location on Military Road in 2007.

"Then we came to Monday to see that we just came through the weekend and we did not achieve even 50 per cent of our normal sales,” he said.

On Monday, 22 more employees were laid off.

What hurts the most, he says, is that he employs a lot of people with disabilities who love going to work.

“To lay those people off... it’s such an important part of their social being, of who they are, and a sense of place for them,” he says. “But deep down I’m saying, if I don’t lay them off, we’re only going to fool them up. At least now, hopefully they’ll have a chance of getting some EI.”


“There’s nothing I can do to change any of it.” — Scott Hillyer


Hillyer says the company and its five locations across Newfoundland and the two in Nova Scotia, have been riding a very tight economic wave for the past two years, but was hopeful looking ahead at 2020.

“We knew that times were tough,” he said. “The future was looking bright for 2020 so we just dug in and said, you know what, we’re going to reinvest and we’re going to go in this for the long haul.”

However, since January, because of the state of emergency and other major snowstorms, he says the company has lost 24 days of sales.

“That equates up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for us,” he said.

To generate more revenue, the company began aggressively pursuing catering contracts for large corporate events. And they did have several scheduled, Hillyer said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. - Postmedia
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. - Postmedia

“But unfortunately, all those corporate events are coming up in the next two to three weeks, so every one of those corporate events we had booked, is now gone,” he said.

To save money where he can, he’s been contacting his phone company and debit machine company, to suspend his payments for the time being. They agreed.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is under a self-quarantine in his house after his wife tested positive for COVID-19, gave a news conference just feet from the door on Tuesday. He said the federal government is working on plans to address the impact of COVID-19 on the economy.

“By the end of the week we will have more to say about changes to the upcoming tax season,” he said. “We’re looking at giving more flexibility for people to make payments and for businesses to have more liquidity.”

Michael Wozney and his wife, Cinthia, recently opened Frida’s Riverside Café at the Manuels River Hibernia Interpretation Centre. The state of emergency had delayed the original opening from Feb. 1 until Feb. 11.

“We got about two to three weeks of revenue and then COVID-19 started happening,” he said. “Business started slowing down about a week ago with people's concerns.

“Obviously, bills keep going and going and power keeps getting used so today we closed and I’m literally looking at a notice going,' you need to pay your power cause it’s past due.'”

Michael and Cynthia Wozney. - SaltWire File Photo
Michael and Cynthia Wozney. - SaltWire File Photo

 

Wozney is sure he’s not alone in this situation, as the winter months are often hard times for restaurants.

“A lot of small businesses are still reeling from a quieter Christmas than normal, and then Snowmageddon, and now this,” he said. “The uncertainty of what this is going to be, or what the big picture will be, I think a lot of small mom-and-pop places probably won’t survive it.”

In the meantime, Frida’s Riverside Café will continue to do take out two days a week.

However, as news from across the world continues to flow, he said he worries his operation might soon be mandated to shut down.

Twitter: @AndrewLWaterman


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