South End café fights to survive

Coburg Social co-owner Kelly Irvine. Photo: Travis Devonport

Kelly Irvine, the long-time co-owner of Coburg Social, is leading a fight she says is a matter of survival for her business.

On June 19, Irvine filed a petition to District 7 Councillor, Waye Mason. The petition received 1,200 signatures in support of letting the Coburg Road café expand its patio space. The addition would offer 20 extra seats but requires closing a portion of Henry Street. Mason brought the petition to Council, which denied the request, although she’s going to rework it and submit it again.

Having the chance to temporarily expand the café doesn’t guarantee it’ll make more money but Irvine knows it would increase customer capacity by 50% to 70%. “The city doesn’t have tourists, Dal doesn’t have students, Dal doesn’t have conferences,” she says. “We’re fighting … a whole bunch of battles but at least if we had the seats for people to sit in, we’d have a chance at increasing our sales.”

Before the lockdown, Coburg Social had 25 workers. During the pandemic, Irvine laid off all of them. Relying on her four children while scraping by on 20% of regular sales, together her family was able to run orders at the front window, plus online and by phone.

Since dine-in service returned on June 9, Irvine rehired 12 workers using the wage subsidy. Coburg Social has also qualified for the $40,000 Canada Emergency Business Account loan (CEBA). Irvine says she intends to make use of that “as long as we possibly can.”

Professor and business analyst Ed McHugh says the small-business sector is getting hit hard. “My heart bleeds for small businesses right now,” he adds. “For a lot of small businesses, it’s not about succeeding right now: it’s about surviving.” He explains that big businesses can absorb shocks far better than small businesses; small-business owners are dealing with something they never anticipated, which puts their livelihoods are in jeopardy.

Coburg Summer is serving 400 regulars on a busy day, compared to 1,000 pre-pandemic. McHugh advises small-business owners to consider options like raising prices, lay off staff, and and unconventional promotions. Irvine had hoped her patio proposal would be an attention-grabber.

According to Mason, the plan Irvine has submitted doesn’t meet the city’s expectations. He says the café needs to provide an improved plan that accounts for wheelchair accessibility at both ends of the patio. Irvine has also requested to install pavers where there’s currently grass. Mason says that request won’t be approved.

“We’re encouraging businesses to get rid of parking on the street and make that into a patio, put a couple barricades at the beginning and end of the patio area,” Mason says. “Closing a street is a whole other process that requires a public hearing and a whole bunch of time, even if it’s temporary.”

Irvine doesn’t think the municipal government understands how urgent her situation is. “We’re trying to ask the city to think outside of the box,” she says. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, maybe relax some rules, maybe let things happen in a different way than they have before.”

Irvine plans on submitting an improved plan. If that isn’t approved, she says Coburg Social will continue to exist at 50% capacity for as long as possible. “I think everyone’s done what they can do in the midst of a pandemic,” Irvine says. “At this point the only thing we can hope for is a vaccine. I don’t see any other answers.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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