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OKOTOKIAN: Braving the Pandemic

“I think there was a lot more people that stayed local and we had a lot of repeat business from locals that were in the area, as well as all of the tourists that came through. We’ve had a fabulous year with just the sheer volume of people coming through.”

Entrepreneurs preparing to set up shop in Black Diamond earlier this year had no idea what was in store for them when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Getting his start during the pandemic was new business owner Colin Cross, who opened Save On Wine U-Brew on Aug. 6.

“COVID has had an impact in a positive way because people are looking to save money,” he said. “You can buy a bottle of wine for $15 or you can make your own wine for $5 per bottle.”

While self-brewing is a popular business venture in B.C., it’s not so well known in Alberta, said Cross.

“The government put the you-brew licences out at the same time the cannabis laws came out,” said Cross. “I didn’t even know… it was so hush-hush. Everybody wanted to buy a cannabis shop, but nobody was looking at wine and beer making.”

Cross became familiar with the self-brewing business while living in B.C., using the service on occasion.

“I was like, this is way easier than having the smell in my house,” he said. “I loved the idea.”

Cross had been operating his 24-year-old IT company remotely from Black Diamond, where he’s lived for three years, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Alberta.

Already burned out, and with his clientele dwindling, Cross was ready for a new career.

“A lot of businesses shut down and there was no income,” he said. “Everyone was downsizing. I lost my last client in July. I wanted to do something, I really just didn’t know what.”

Cross, who had looked into operating a self-brewing business while living in B.C. years ago, decided to open shop in Black Diamond.

He began working on the licence and business plan when the shutdown occurred. Lucky for Cross, liquor establishments were considered an essential service.

He found office space for rent on 3rd Street NE and struck a deal with the owner.

Since opening his doors in early August, Cross sold more than 50 wine, beer and cider kits. He walks his patrons through the process, does most of the work himself with help from his mom Dianna Hardy and, in four to six weeks, has around 30 bottles of brew ready for labeling and capping.

“I have 60 different kits for wine, beer and cider,” he said. “Whatever somebody wants, I can get.”

The experience is a stark contrast to the IT business.

“There’s almost zero stress in this,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be in an industry where people are happy.”

Also appealing to people’s varied tastes is entrepreneur Danielle French, who opened Enlightened Herb Cannabis in an old church on Government Road Aug. 1.

She, too, is reaping the benefits of providing an essential service amid the pandemic.

“When the whole lockdown happened, cannabis stores were considered an essential service so sales have gone up nationally from the numbers I’ve seen,” said French. “We’re right on the Cowboy Trail so a lot of traffic does come though. There’s lots of locals, but definitely people from out of town as well.”

The musician and filmmaker partnered with Calgary theatre actor Doug McKeag to offer a unique niche in the cannabis market, sourcing craft and micro-growers in Canada and bringing in some locally made accessories.

The fact that they opened during the pandemic was just a coincidence.

“We’d been working towards it for two and a half years and it’s just the timing of the permits coming through,” said French.

As Canada prepared for the legalization of cannabis, which became official Oct. 17, 2018, French began the process of putting together a business plan. She had invested in cannabis stocks before its legalization in Canada and used that money to start her own shop.

“It’s a really exciting time to see the birth of a brand new industry,” she said. “I’m excited about the medical side of it and seeing how it can help people and being part of this brand new industry that I followed from day one.”

Like any business owner, French said they are still figuring out the ropes.

Every product is ordered with intention, with a focus on Alberta micro-growers.

“Our first order was from big producers, but some of those products still sitting on my shelves and some of my smaller growers have gone through several orders,” she said. “We’re sourcing more from Alberta-grown micro-growers that have unique products that aren’t easy to find in other stores.”

French thought the cheapest pre-rolls would fly off the shelves, but it was the but it was the unique strains like Mimosa and Platinum Gelato that got more interest.”

“It seems that people like to try new things, which was counter-intuitive to what I thought it would be,” she said. “I thought people would come in wanting a specific brand.”

French said she and McKeag are doing their research and finding suppliers that are using superior growing methods with a focus on local, small batch, craft and organic growers whenever possible.

In addition to offering traditional cannabis products, French and McKeag also bring in wellness products like oils and topical creams.

Those who walk into Enlightened Herb Cannabis will not just notice the variety of products, but also evidence of the duo’s artistic background.

When film production ceased in March due to the shutdown, French called upon the arts community to assist with the interior design. This included Calgary artist Bart Habermiller, who created a wooden sculpture installation in the church vestibule, and Treena Primmer of Twist Design in Okotoks, who created custom, cannabis-leaf themed stained glass windows.

The décor and furniture is second-hand from an antique pump organ to a high-back church pew.

“When people come into the space it’s really fun to see them wowed by the decor and the setup we have here.”

Barbecue connoisseur Vince Gosling was weeks away from opening his newest business venture, Smokey Goose BBQ - a food shack in the Hard Knox Brewery parking lot that would serve up smoked and barbecue menu options - when the pandemic shut down restaurants across Alberta.

“I was thinking I just threw away a bunch of money because they had shut everything down – I was quite concerned,” the Okotoks resident said. “When they opened restaurants back up I was concerned that people weren’t going to go out because they were worried, but the exact opposite happened. We had tons of people come out.”

Gosling opened the family-owned and operated business with daughters Shelby and Molly on the Victoria Day weekend.

“We did a lot better than we ever expected to and I think COVID actually helped us,” said Gosling. “I think there was a lot more people that stayed local and we had a lot of repeat business from locals that were in the area, as well as all of the tourists that came through. We’ve had a fabulous year with just the sheer volume of people coming through.”

Gosling, who works full time at the Foothills Regional Landfill & Resource Recovery Centre, started Smokey Goose BBQ as a part-time career venture for himself and his daughters while putting his 20 years of smoking and barbecuing experience to good use.

“The recipes are my own experimentation,” he said. “I watch a lot of food videos and I take those ideas and make them my own.”

For five months, Smokey Goose BBQ offered such locally-sourced dishes as pulled pork sandwiches, smoked hamburgers, smoked pork belly and wings.

With Hard Knox Brewery next door and a busy Highway 7 within view, business was profitable for the Goslings.

“We ran out of food on a regular basis,” Gosling said. “It’s just an ideal spot. It’s got the family-friendly vibe that we really like and it is animal friendly.”

August proved to be the busiest month for the Goslings, and Saturdays the busiest day, with a constant flow of hungry customers.

“We didn’t have a bad weekend in August weather-wise so that was a big help for sure,” said Gosling. “It’s been a fantastic season.”

Rather than people heading across the border or overseas for their summer vacations, Gosling said they stayed local due to restrictions surrounding the pandemic.

“We really reaped the benefits from that,” he said. “We got a lot of repeat customers that don’t live in Black Diamond. I really think that helped get our name out there and it helped us get started.

“We’re going to see if we can better our numbers next year. The world is our oyster.”

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