COVID-19-related shutdowns have impacted almost every business across our community. Local retailers, restaurants, farmers, bars and butchers have closed their doors to help flatten the curve of community spread. 

Thankfully, at least three local tech companies have stepped up to help businesses move to online ordering to keep their teams employed and our fridges full.

The closing of the Kitchener Market was the sign for Milky Way Farms owner Jesse Leeway to start looking at other ways to deliver his produce to customers across the Region. “We had a lot of customers just kind of asking how they would continue to get our produce when the market is closed,” said Leeway. “We quickly had to try to adjust and change what we’re doing. So we switched over to an online store.”

Leeway’s solution came from Kitchener-based Local Line. The platform is built for farmers and food hubs to market and sell directly to customers. Leeway was familiar with Local Line but hadn’t considered online as a priority prior to COVID-19. “We’ve been thinking about delivery and then all of a sudden COVID hits and it’s ‘all right, we need to change what we’re doing.’ It’s like the future is now.”

People packing a trunk with goods

Milky Way Farms as a produce pickup at Cafe
Pyrus Outpost (Image courtesy Cafe Pyrus
Outpost Instagram)

Leeway has been impressed with Local Line’s ease of setup. “Their product is geared towards farms and food hubs for sourcing local products. We’re able to just stock it each week with what we have available with storage crops now and we have new crops coming on soon that we’re growing in the greenhouse – so we’ll soon have a lot more variety.”

Local Line CEO Cole Jones was in Chicago in early March when the COVID-19 shutdowns began. “I was at a conference and one of the speakers had a note about farmers needing to be prepared for COVID and to create alternate sales channels as a kind of insurance policy.” 

As soon as Jones arrived back at the Local Line office in downtown Kitchener, he and his team built a COVID preparedness guide and posted it on their site. “I’ve never experienced demand like this in my life,” added Jones. “Pre-COVID, having an online store was an extension. Now, it’s everything the farmer and food markets can do.”

Farmers aren’t the only customers for Local Line. They also work with food hubs and markets across Canada and the U.S. In British Columbia, the ministry responsible for farmers markets called Jones about getting their 145 farmers’ markers online with Local Line. “This is why we show up to work every day, to help farmers. The world is different – this is going to be the new normal.”

Milky Way Farms now offers delivery in Kitchener and Waterloo and pickup in Woodstock and at the Cafe Pyrus Outpost in Kitchener. Leeway said they will also use Local Line for their community supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions. “We didn’t offer the CSA to Kitchener before. We just had the market. Now we’re getting a lot of customers interested in the CSA from Kitchener and Waterloo.”

Like Milky Way Farms, Forequarter Butcher Shop’s Colby LeMoine had always thought about having an online store when he opened his business. “COVID-19 was the catalyst to do it. We were cautious when the situation first started.” Early on, LeMoine closed the store to customers by taking orders online and doing curbside pickup. 

The Forequarter team quickly found that taking orders over the phone was inefficient. He needed a solution to do online ordering. Luckily, he didn’t have to go far to find a recommendation. LeMoine’s wife Kirstie Herbstreit is co-owner of The Culinary Studio in Belmont Village. “Sociavore made their website. She recommended that I reach out to them and they were amazing to deal with.”

Sociavore is a web platform designed for restaurants and hospitality. They offer everything from beautiful menus to guest messaging services and integrations with services including OpenTable, MailChimp and social networks like Twitter and Instagram.

LeMoine described himself as more a pen-and-paper guy. Before adding the Sociavore-powered store to his site, he would just write on paper and price out per piece or pound. Once LeMoine signed up with Sociavore, they were able to add the store to his site overnight. “We launched last Monday for Tuesday pickup. It’s going really well,” added LeMoine.

Sociavore co-founder and COO Amina Gilani knew that closed dining rooms meant their customers would need help. The team had launched e-commerce and gift card features last year – and within days of the shutdowns launched their COVID help page.  

Online payments are powered by Square, which also has a local office in Kitchener. “They’re great. They’re waiving the payment processing fees on the first $1,000 of revenue,” added Gilani. “We want people using this because online is the only channel they have.”

People picking up brown paper bags at Arabella Park

Social distancing pickup at
Arabella Park with Taylor Jones
from Someone’s Studio

A few local establishments had online ordering prior to the COVID-19 shutdowns but weren’t set up for same-day ordering and delivery. “We had Shopify set up when we opened,” said Trudy Koen, one of the owners of Lady Glaze Donuts in Belmont Village. “We were doing online ordering for corporate orders which were usually 48 hours in advance. We had to completely revamp to make this work during COVID.”

One hurdle for the Lady Glaze team was inventory. As a bakery, inventory changes rapidly through the day and they found themselves updating more often to make sure the online shop showed product availability. “We’re working to have our customers place orders the night before for curbside pickup the next day. We’re getting a lot of orders, and every morning we go in and print off and plan out our deliveries for the day.”

Helping local businesses was also on the mind of Katie Cerar, a Senior Product Lead at Shopify Plus in uptown Waterloo. “I had been in a funk feeling there was nothing I could do to help. I woke up on a Saturday morning and was thinking about some of my favourite local businesses and thought a simple way to do a curbside pickup workflow in Shopify could help.”

Cerar got her laptop and started to write. In a couple of hours she had finished and shared her “How to Build a ‘Buy Online, Pickup Curbside’ store” doc. “It just took off from there,” said Cerar. 

“I live downtown and work in uptown. I adore our independent businesses and entrepreneurs here,” Cerar said. “I felt like maybe one of the best ways for those businesses to weather this storm is by selling online.” To help businesses affected by COVID-19, Shopify extended its trial period from 14 to 90 days and made gift cards a standard feature on all plans.

In addition to the curbside doc, Cerar created guides for retailers and merchants for building local delivery into a Shopify store and how to sell gift cards using Shopify. “Gift cards are usually just that–- gifts,” added Cerar. “But now they are like a microloan. It’s a way of saying to your local businesses, ‘I believe in you and care about your success.’ None of us want to lose them, lose that character. I want to see us come out on the other end of this with all the businesses that we love.”