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Bucking the trend of business closures

D'Arcy's Meat Market is expanding from its St. Albert digs, to a second location on Edmonton's south side. Photo: supplied.

Some eight months since COVID-19 hit the Alberta economy with a wallop, up to 32,000 small businesses say they're considering declaring bankruptcy or closing.

A fall survey by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) showed a bleak outlook for small business, with 16 per cent saying they're unsure they'll survive the COVID-19 crisis.

“It’s quite concerning,” said CFIB Alberta's Annie Dormuth. "We're not seeing the return to normal sales that are critical to business survival going into the fall and winter months.”

Statistics Canada numbers from September show that the province has gained back some 55 per cent of jobs lost since the start of COVID-19, with growth strongest in the private sector and service areas. Still, unemployment remains at over 11 per cent province-wide; even higher in Edmonton and Calgary.

It's a different story at D'Arcy's Meat Market, a long time St. Albert butcher shop that is not only surviving the pandemic, it's expanding. A second location is now open in south Edmonton, and though the project was in the works before COVID-19, store owner Kyle Iseke says the pandemic hasn't slowed any forward momentum for the business.

"I feel guilty actually, doing well when so many businesses are suffering. But I've hired two butchers and just opened the other store with added staff, so I'm trying to do my part to take care of my staff and grow the business. We have to get to a certain size to be able to do that," said Iseke, who routinely saw lineups at his Campbell Park-area store during COVID-19's first wave in spring and summer. The store has about 20 full and part-time staff at the flagship store and new location.

"The aim is to have an excellent butcher shop with knowledgeable staff. I don't want a revolving door by paying minimum wage. My staff are capable of having their own shops, so it's been a big goal of mine to offer good wages with benefits," added Iseke.

"We feel lucky. Many in the grocery industry and food sales have been plugging along. And because we don't deal with the big processors, we've always been able to have an impressive selection of product. When there were meat shortages at the big groceries, some were even calling us looking for stock. We've never run out."

Iseke said he's been planning an expansion for awhile, looking for a butcher shop for sale in the region.

"When this one came up for sale on the south side, we thought, do we tackle this now? But it was that way when we first moved to this bigger location in 2013. As soon as we started renovations back then, the province went into a recession," he said. "This time, the space was already an existing butcher shop. We were able to complete the renovations in a month."

Tami MacIntosh, manager of the Whitemud Crossing location, said word is slowly getting out about the butcher shop's new ownership. "We've had a warm reception, and quite a few D'Arcy's customers," she said.

While chicken, beef, pork, lamb and other specialty cuts (veal, bison, Wagyu beef and charcuterie) will still be processed at the 3,600 square-foot St. Albert store, the new 1,000 square-foot shop will cut product fresh for customers. "Our customers come from throughout the region, and they've been asking for an Edmonton location. We hear from many of them on Facebook and Instagram."

Iseke said D'Arcy's focuses on local and sometimes ultra-local for its meat supply. Conventional Alberta 'local' producers provide high quality at lower prices (competitive with the grocery store), while ultra-local beef, chicken, pork etc. is available from as close as farms in Sturgeon County--premium cuts at a premium price.

"There's tiers of local, because not everyone wants to pay extra for a steak," he said. "We want to be competitive with the grocery store for those who want that."

Iseke said he doesn't expect to be too busy at his south side space (#176 4211 106 St.) until next barbecue season, but hopes the shop's previous customers and Christmas season trade will keep things moving. He's also waiting for a new store-front sign at that location before he holds a grand opening event.