For seven months, not a creature has stirred anywhere near Barren Ground Coffee’s modest 51 Avenue storefront.
But the roast must go on and behind the scenes, the beans have been moving like hotcakes.
The roasters started in Old Town in 2017 and move to the core in late 2019. The pandemic forced their shutdown less than four months later.
Barren Ground took a bit of a hit in the March closure, even though its bread and butter of selling to retail and wholesale customers initially continued.
“(But) we began to lose some of those wholesale contracts, like Blachford Lake Lodge (and) Copperhouse and then you could start seeing that cut come in,” owner Eric Binion said.
Blachford, along with most other tourism operators shut down in March when the border closure stopped the flow of tourists. The shift of people working in offices to working at home ended Barren Ground’s sales to downtown offices as well.
Some of Binion’s retail customers, like Down to Earth Gallery and the Cabin gift shop in the airport closed too, while the sales at Independent and Co-op supermarkets stayed consistent, cushioning some of the fall.
The retail and wholesale shortfall amounted to about a 40 per cent loss of revenue, Binion said.
But as some physical doors closed, a virtual one opened.
“When everyone else was closing, then the online (sales) picked up for us,” he said.
“I think it was a lot of government workers, people who were working at home. They were just buying five pound bags, like the big bulk bags that we offer to kind of get through their weeks at home without having to go out shopping.”
Before the pandemic, Barren Ground did three per cent of its business online. Now, it’s more than half.
Binion and his small staff found themselves even busier than before Covid putting in longer hours to meet the delivery orders.
Yellowknifers’ thirst for all things coffee saw Binion’s customers also buying up his java making equipment like electric brewers, French presses and aeropresses. He got a jump on the demand and ordered enough for the first few weeks, but once they were bought up he found it harder to fill orders from distributors.
“They weren’t able to get any either because stuff was being sold out, factories weren’t able to keep up with production because I guess everyone was at home, just drinking tons of coffee. But even now, I’m trying to bring in stuff again, for the holidays for Christmas and everything is backlogged still,” he said.
Online sales continued throughout the summer and they’ve done well enough that Binion wants to sell to more underserved areas in the NWT, Alberta and British Columbia.
“We’re already picking up every week, I’m getting orders from Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick,” he said. “I’m able to see (on) the website where people are clicking from. And there’ll be something like a Chatelaine article about supporting roasters in different provinces and territories, and our name will be there and a link. People are buying coffee all over Canada now. The pandemic has certainly pushed us into building a better online system.”
Binion is already preparing to increase his capacity and has ordered a new, larger roaster that will allow him to roast three times more coffee in the same amount of time.
After an unpredictable year that treated Barren Ground better than it has other businesses in town, Binion has been able to chip away at his old plans of building an espresso bar in the shop and selling baked goods made by Jeremy Flatt of the Fat Fox Cafe.
When he reopened the shop last week, Barren Ground could show off its new baked treats, oven and espresso bar, though it still caters to a take out customer base due to the lack of space for sit-down customers.
“Jeremy’s helping us train all the staff to start running all that stuff right now, as we’re moving forward.”
As much as the expansion shows how Barren Ground has managed to push through seven months of ups and downs, Binion recognizes customer support for the core of the business has made all the difference.
“The only hope I had was knowing that the roasting side of the business could carry us through.”