Coronavirus
Economy
Yellowknife

Some still have to work in YK’s service industry. How are they doing?

Last modified: March 24, 2020 at 9:01am


As businesses shutter, events evaporate, and people self-isolate across the NWT, they are the workers ensuring people remain fed, caffeinated, and supplied.

Behind the front line of healthcare professionals fighting Covid-19 are hundreds of the territory’s service industry workers – unsung heroes propping up grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, and cab companies. 

In the face of a global pandemic, the NWT’s service industry is doing everything to survive and stay safe.

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At Yellowknife’s Copperhouse Eatery and Lounge, the solution is “touchless takeout.”

On March 17, Copperhouse announced it was closing its restaurant and lounge in favour of a takeout option where customers order and pay online, then pick up at a takeout window “with no contact other than a friendly smile.” 

We’re just doing our everyday job. We know there’s a certain risk component to it and we’re trying to make sure our staff are comfortable, in good spirits, and have good morale.

JUSTIN NELSON, YELLOWKNIFE CO-OP

“Basically overnight we flipped and landed a new business model and have been figuring it out over the week,” said co-owner Mark Henry, adding they’re focused on keeping the business going so they can reopen “when the dust settles.”

But “touchless” doesn’t mean customers aren’t connecting with staff.

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On its Facebook page, Copperhouse has shared photos of order receipts in an album titled “Notes in a time of social distancing.

The images highlight kind messages from customers, describing how the takeout service is helping them after a long work day, instead of a failed cooking attempt, or even as a birthday celebration.

“People are just so grateful for interaction and connection and we’re definitely feeling the love,” Henry said.

“I think we all need a little bit of love right now.”

The restaurant is using its online ordering service to help local Girl Guides, who are unable to sell cookies door-to-door during the pandemic.

Now, you can pick up Girl Guide cookies when you drive through. Henry set it up after talking with the cookie drive’s organizer.

“Her house is literally filled with cookies,” he said. “Like, you can’t watch TV in her house. There’s cookies stacked to the ceiling.”

Almost every takeout order now includes a box of cookies, Henry said. 

Copperhouse is looking to expand what is proving a successful service in a time of social distancing. Other local businesses approached include the NWT Fish Company, Barren Ground Coffee, and Erasmus Apparel. 

Yellowknife's Woodyard brewpub

Kids normally can’t eat Woodyard food. A pandemic has changed that. Photo: NWT Brewing Co

Across town, The Woodyard Brewhouse and Eatery is offering takeout with its remaining “skeleton staff.”

Marketing manager Thomas Bentham said any revenue during this “dire time” will help the company hire back laid-off part-time employees once the pandemic passes.

The silver lining? Kids can have Woodyard food for the first time (the bar and restaurant doesn’t allow minors). Bentham is considering developing a kids’ menu among other creative takeout options.

Sushi Café, meanwhile, is open for takeout – its reduced hours are 4-8:30pm – and one of the few restaurants in town offering delivery.

Drivers are protecting themselves with face masks and a new layer of saran wrap on card-reading machines for each customer.

‘Doing the best we can’

The Yellowknife Co-op like many grocery stores across the country, was hit hard by panic-buying in recent weeks.

“Society in general just panicked and tore into these grocery stores and took everything they had,” said general manager Justin Nelson. 

By Sunday, buying had slowed to normal levels, Nelson said. Employees were at last able to make some headway stocking shelves. 

“We’ve still got a long, long ways to go, but it was a bit of an improvement,” Nelson continued. “We didn’t have the crazy rush we were getting for the last 10 days.”

The Co-op has limited purchases of key items like toilet paper. The store is still facing challenges keeping items like flour and sugar in stock.

“I’m trying to be optimistic about it,” said Nelson. “I think we’ve peaked and hopefully we can get back to normal in the next three to four weeks.

“We’re doing the best we can. We’re just doing … our everyday job. We know there’s a certain risk component to it and we’re trying to make sure our staff are comfortable, in good spirits, and have good morale.”

A photo uploaded to the City Cab website shows vehicles waiting at Yellowknife's airport

A file photo of City Cab vehicles at the Yellowknife Airport. With virtually no fares, drivers are now helping Elders get their groceries. Photo: City Cab

At Yellowknife’s two Tim Hortons locations, which remain open, staff reported a wave of positive experiences with customers.

“Customers [are] being really very nice and just thanking us that we are open and we are here to serve them,” said Purab Barot, who works at the restaurant on Old Airport Road. “Customers really appreciate our efforts here.”

Kinjal Thotaval, manager at the Tim Hortons in Centre Square Mall, says people still obliged to work downtown are glad they have somewhere to get coffee. 

“Some customer came today and they were really happy that we are open these days, and we are helping, and we are giving them drinks,” she said. 

At both locations, employees are regularly washing their hands and sanitizing pin pads and other surfaces. Customers are asked to pay by card if they can. Any employee that handles cash doesn’t handle food. 

‘It’s pretty dead’

At Yellowknife’s City Cab, manager Shirley McGrath said many drivers are taking their vehicles off the road. Those still in operation have been given sanitizers to use after each fare, while some drivers are wearing masks and gloves to protect themselves. Passengers are being asked to sit in the back of vehicles. 

McGrath said calls for taxis have dropped dramatically since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The company is cutting its dispatch service by half.

“It’s pretty dead,” she said.

With fares hard to come by, City Cab drivers are filling the time by offering free delivery of groceries to seniors.

At the ReddiMart convenience store on Byrne Road, staff member Kyle Cooper admitted: “It is really dead around here. We see, like, maybe a couple customers every couple hours.”

The customers that do come into the store are buying more, he said, and they’re glad the store is open. (One customer even dropped off a box of face masks.)

“Instead of one pack of smokes they’ll buy a whole carton,” Cooper said.

“So things have been OK.”

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