“I think when we come out the other end of this, I think my business definitely will be better off. COVID-19 in general has helped me look at how I can expand my business. It doesn’t have to be just the restaurant. So once we’re through all this, I see my sales getting larger. And I definitely think that invest Ottawa helped me set up the tools that I needed in order to make that happen.” – Summer Baird, Owner, The Hintonburg Public House
When restaurant owner Summer Baird thinks of herself out on the floor at her Hintonburg Public House, she chuckles a bit, thinking she’s maybe a little too talkative to be an efficient part of the service team, especially when things get busy.
“I always make a joke,” she says, laughing in an afternoon virtual interview, “that if you see me on the floor, you know somebody didn’t show up, or something’s going on.”
Baird is right. Something is definitely going on.
Like most restaurant owners, Baird finds herself in many roles fighting to run her restaurant with a skeleton crew during a pandemic. Unpredictable and inconsistent restrictions have made scheduling and staffing a “nightmare” – and the challenge of remaining profitable is transforming her business and putting demands on her to find solutions to make things work.
“Now I do everything – including the dishes,” she says laughing. “I was doing dishes this weekend and serving. But yeah, what I’m supposed to be doing are the books and the management and advertising,” she added. “That sort of thing.”
From Trained Chef to Owner
Baird’s road to restaurant ownership started with a passion for cooking. She studied at Stratford Chefs School here in Ontario and travelled out west to work as a chef in Vancouver Island.
When she felt the entrepreneurial need to express her vision through her own restaurant venture, she moved back east to the Glebe area of Ottawa to open her first restaurant, The Urban Pear, in 2001.
After moving on from The Urban Pear, she noticed a gap in the Hintonburg neighbourhood and a chance to offer something between a tavern and fine dining. Seizing the opportunity, she opened the Hintonburg Public House in 2011 to bring comfort food and elevated pub fare to business professionals and locals in the area.
But over the years, the competition moved in, and Baird felt to remain competitive, she’d have to make a few adjustments. To her surprise, increasing competition and the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic might have provided the push she needed to make some necessary changes.
“When I first opened, it was one of the only restaurants. Now there’s a lot more, so there’s a lot more competition,” said Baird. “So, I did see my sales start to dip, so I actually needed this.”
“I didn’t maybe need this hard of a kick in the butt to get it going,” she added. “But yeah. It needed to happen.”
Pivoting to Survive
With the workforce now working from home and fewer diners venturing out due to COVID-19 distancing restrictions, relying solely on a dine-in business model became impossible for many restaurants.
This shift caused restaurant owners like Baird to offer take out and delivery, even if it wasn’t something they wanted as part of their business model.
“We transitioned to take out and delivery, and that’s its own beast I’m calling it,” she said. “I can’t wait to never have to do it again. But I don’t know if we’ll ever get to that point. But yeah, that was kind of a learning curve for us.”
For Baird, survival has been about being inventive and adapting, as relying primarily on food delivery and take out simply wouldn’t have provided enough revenue to ensure survival.
“Well, we’ve never had a patio before. And now in my two parking spots, I have a patio,” she said sounding a little surprised. “I’m thankful to have it, because otherwise I would’ve been closed by now for sure.”
“Guaranteed,” she added. “There’s no way take out and delivery could have paid my rent.”
Adapting the parking lot into a makeshift patio wasn’t the only change that she’s made with her business. Baird also expanded her offerings by adding additional merchandising freezers to sell ready-made meals customers could heat up at home and an online store offering antiques and collectables.
Baird soon realised that along with these changes, digital upgrades had to take place to incorporate an evolving business model that relied much more on its website than ever before.
“Before, yes, people could go to our website,” said Baird. “But now, every single customer that comes through my door is going on my website. Plus, if there are people that order in or order takeout,” she added, “they’re still going to my website. So, it needed to function well.”
And with that, Baird says she admittedly required a bit of help.
Enter Digital Main Street and Invest Ottawa
Baird says she reached out with the initial roll-out of the Digital Main Street program to apply for grants and to get help first committing to much needed digital updates and then making them happen.
“Initially, I needed help,” said Baird. “I’m not tech-savvy in any way,” she added. “It’s not something I had the budget for, because I don’t understand it.”
Along the way, she signed up for the Invest Ottawa newsletter. And when she got word of the Transformation Teams available to help small businesses undergo a digital transformation for free through the Future Proof program, she applied “right away”.
“Using someone else’s money was a way to sort of ease into it,” she said. “And now it is part of my budgeting… I mean it’s 2020,” she quickly added. “I needed to change. I needed to be doing that probably five years ago.”
Baird was soon contacted by a Transformation Team who, over two weeks, worked with her to strengthen her digital strategy. And Baird didn’t waste the opportunity.
“I definitely took as much as they would give me,” she said. “You could do as much or as little as you wanted, if you wanted to keep them busy. And I think I had them very busy,” she added. “They had a lot of good ideas. Things I didn’t think about.”
Digital Strategy at Work
At the core of the changes was updating and optimizing the current website – and redesigning and formatting it to help customers access information quickly and easily whether they were ordering food for delivery or shopping for collectibles and holiday gifts.
Another needed and important change highlighted was to find ways to connect with customers as they remain distanced at home. For Baird, part of the solution was creating a newsletter to share upcoming events and with her customers, which she happily reports now sends to a list of over 100 people since being added to the homepage.
But while the newsletter was key in reaching customers, there was still a need to create a social media strategy to engage with but attract new customers.
On this, the Transformation Team developed a guide to social media advertising, with a library of social media posts and graphics that made it easy for Baird to create posts on her channels.
“Well, after they started talking to me, I think they realized pretty quick that I’m pretty basic when it comes to anything tech,” she shared. “So, I said, ‘I really need you to write it down, point form and just give me a guide.’ So, they made up these social media guides for me, which I use a lot.”
Better Equipped for Tomorrow
Now, with it looking as though pandemic restrictions could possibly continue into 2021, Baird feels better equipped and optimistic for the future after taking part in the Future Proof program.
“I think when we come out the end other end of this, I think my business definitely will be better off,” says Baird. “COVID-19 in general has helped me look at how I can expand my business. It doesn’t have to be just the restaurant. So once we’re through all this, I see my sales getting larger,” she added.
“And I definitely think that invest Ottawa helped me set up the tools that I needed in order to make that happen.”
And for anyone on the fence about applying for Future Proof, Baird offered a little advice.
“It’s free, so why wouldn’t you?” she asked. “I would say make the time.”
To get started on setting up your business for the future for free, apply to the Future Proof program today.
Also, don’t forget to visit the Hintonburg Public House online – whether you’re looking for some great local food options or some one-of-a-kind gifts through their online gift shop.
To learn more about the Digital Main Street program and how businesses can apply, visit our webpage.
A special thank you to the Government of Canada and specifically FedDev Ontario for making this program possible and enabling the team at Invest Ottawa to provide critical support to main street businesses when it is needed most.