More people buying locally

More people buying locally: restrictions and negative messaging have an impact

Midway through Cortes Island’s second Spring of the pandemic, more people are buying locally, but government restrictions and Quadra Island’s negative messaging have an impact.

Photo courtesy Cortes Natural Food Co-op

Sales higher than pre-COVID years

Bill Dougan reported that,  at the Gorge Harbour general store, “Up until the beginning of May, it was up quite substantially over last year. We’re seeing new people and a lot of local islanders who maybe were gone during the winter in normal winters, but are still here. We’re seeing a lot more people from Mansons Landing down at this end, I’m not really sure why. A bit of both: new people and people who usually go away during the winter.” 

Eric Hargrave from the Cortes Natural Food Co-op emailed that “We do have more local customers; people are staying on the island more for their shopping, and we expect that to continue.  However, we’re still seeing plenty of visitors on the weekends especially.  People are still coming to the island – whether they’re looking for a new home, considering their retirement here, or just relaxing at the beach – I don’t know, but they are coming.

He reports that a year before the Pandemic, in April 2019, the Co-op’s sales were $140,000.

They rose to $182,000 in April 2020, the height of the pandemic run on food.

Sales for April 2021 were not much less than last year: $177,000.  

Curt Cunningham said sales at the Squirrel Cove General Store have been steady. 

“Local traffic is up, slightly, not a lot from before the virus and, of course, tourism traffic is way, way down. We’ve had very few tourists and a couple of boaters.”

Keeping up with Supplies

Dougan says that, with sales being substantially higher, he is also ordering more stock. Yet, aside from a few tricky items, there has not been any problem keeping up.

Hargrave wrote, “Instead of making big orders in the store for bulk quantities like last year, people have gone back to more regular shopping.  However, because the restaurant business is so limited now, people are looking for new foods to try and are still buying more on every trip.  After a couple years at these levels, we expect them to become our new baseline for the future.”

Inside the food track – courtesy Carie Taylor

Take out on Cortes

Take-out has become a big treat for many Cortesians.

As of Wednesday, May 5th, the Floathouse restaurant is open five days a week, from one to 8:30.  

The Sunflower Food Truck will be reopening at its new location by the Gorge Harbour store this Friday, from 8 AM to 1 PM and it will be open 5 days a week after the long weekend.

They have a full breakfast and lunch menu plus lots of home baked goods like Cinnamon Buns, Muffins, Cookies, and a local favourite: sausage rolls. 

When I interviewed Carie Taylor a couple of months ago, she reported they were selling more than 30 sausage rolls a day through the Gorge Harbour store. 

Sujon is now calling the Toki Bap Cafe ‘Toki to go.’ Order from the menu on the Tideline, and select the pick up time by Thursday 4pm by email or phone 250-935-6665 or text 250-201-5421. Pick up Friday 12-5:30.

The Co-op cafe is now a deli and has been slowly building sales again since the beginning of this year.  

The Cortes Market Deli and Coffee Bar is open during store hours, with strict COVID protocols in place. They offer sandwiches, a variety of sweet and savoury goodies, plus Tim Horton Coffee to go.  

Shortage of working people

There have also been challenges.

Eric Hargrave reports “There is an acute shortage of working people this year.  Every spring, we expect an influx of people – whether they’re coming to figure out their lives or to get out of the city or to take a break from school – they come here and, at some point, they need to work.  Working in the local retail environment is a good introduction to the community; they meet many other people and those connections help them get better housing and better jobs and they decide to stay longer.  

That didn’t happen last spring because of the pandemic, and that didn’t happen again this year because there’s nowhere to live.  

“At the Co-op, for our summer staff, we’re relying on four teenagers who worked for us last summer and at least three more teenagers who happen to be coming back from school.  We can’t bring anyone else from off-island because we already have a few year-round staff who don’t have secure housing, and there are a couple skilled positions we’re struggling to fill.  We’re facing an incredible staff shortage coming again this fall.  Without staff, we will have to cut – reduce hours, reduce service levels, reduce everything.  The demographics on this island have fundamentally changed and soon it will show.”

Travel Restrictions

On April 23rd, the province announced it is prohibiting non-essential traffic between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland

Bill Dougan is concerned, “We were told that there was no plans to bring in drastic measures … Back then I think there were 250 or 300 new cases a day. A lot of us felt that was a high number, but the government reaction to it was negligent, insignificant. They had no reaction to it and indicated they felt they had no need to bring in drastic measures. That was up until about three weeks before they made their announcement.”

Tourism BC sent out a memo stating they were expecting a great summer. They didn’t anticipate the border being open, but they did expect there to be a lot of intra-province travel. 

Hargrave wrote, “Since the current restrictions were announced in April, we’ve seen a slowing down.  In the spring, we expect an upward curve all the way to the peak in early August, but this year we’re flat for the past few weeks.  It seems that people are staying away in the way that the pandemic guidelines have called for.  Now, whether the slowdown now allows for a less restrictive summer is a completely open question in my mind.  We were planning for a summer like 2019 but, if everyone is waiting to travel in July now, what is that going to look like?  This island can only handle so many people and we may be pushing those limits if so many visitors decide to come at once.”

Cunningham was optimistic about the travel restrictions: “I take for granted that it is necessary. I’m hoping that it gets things under control, so that it will be opened up when summer really hits.”

The Cortes-Quadra ferry – Roy L Hales photo

Quadra Island’s Negative messaging

Quadra Island’s request that visitors stay away is also having an impact. 

At the end of March, Regional Director Jim Abram issued a press release stating, “Quadra Island is a small community with limited resources and its share of vulnerable residents. Like other small destinations, we are at special risk of exposure from people who may unknowingly travel with the infection. we all know now that isolation and limiting travel are key strategies in fighting this epidemic. Our community is asking anyone thinking of visiting Quadra, for discretionary reasons, reconsider andmake plans to come at a safer time when we look forward to welcoming our visitors back.”  

Bill Dougan said, “Quadra takes such a vigilant stand. Out of all the islands, they were the only island, including any in the southern Gulf Islands, that actually put out a press release telling people not to come.”

Cunningham observed, “Quadra Island turning away visitors is definitely going to impact us.”

Eric Hargrave added, “Last year, the businesses on Cortes came out with a similar statement before the summer.  During the height of the pandemic and leading up to last summer, there was a lot of coordination and communication among local businesses about what messages we wanted to send.  This year, it hasn’t happened; no one has brought us together.  I do know that these messages do make a difference.  

“I get occasional inquires through the Co-op website or through the Discovery Islands Chamber of Commerce – the question usually boils down to how do the people on Cortes feel about visitors coming (usually from Vancouver or Vancouver Island)?  Do the people of Cortes want us to shop on island or bring everything with us?  Do the people of Cortes want us to visit the beaches or stay on our property?  These are the conscientious people asking and they do really care what we think.”

Image Courtesy Cortes Natural Food Co-op

Links of interest:

Top photo credit: View fro the floathouse restaurant courtesy of Clark McKay and Carol Pierce.

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