Opening in a pandemic

Why the owners of Gâto and Thyme took the risk

Laura Gurbhoo opened her new bakeshop Gâto during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the logistical challenges.

Keeley Braunstein-Black

Starting a new business can be financially risky at the best of times. Doing so during a pandemic can be particularly challenging. With slim profit margins to begin with, it is a wonder that many places are still somehow operating at reduced capacity. 

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the local restaurant industry hard. Hermanos Restaurant and Wine Bar and Segovia Tapas Bar (among others) closed permanently during the first wave. Amid constant warnings in news articles and online about the status of the industry, this might not seem like the best time for a new venture.  

For Laura Gurbhoo, however, the pandemic is part of what pushed her to open Gâto. 

“The pandemic has definitely (taken) a toll ... however, it has also made me realize how precious time is, and I thought it was time for it,” she says. 

Gâto translates to “cake” in Gurbhoo’s mother tongue, Mauritian Creole. Gâto was inspired by “the current climate crisis, and the need for change,” Gurbhoo says. “Baking has always been my passion, so it was an ideal job for me. I realized that baking was what I wanted to do. Gâto started with the focus of reducing our carbon footprint while providing delicious baked goods to Winnipeg.” 

Sandra Drosdowech, co-owner of Thyme Cafe and Books, is no stranger to the business. She’s a former co-owner of the collective Mondragon Bookstore & Coffee House. Drosdowech hoped to open a vegan restaurant and bookstore since Mondragon closed seven years ago. 

All the ownership team really needed was a desirable location. “We had been looking for a space and saw the space on Taché that had been Cocoabeans Bakeshop a few years ago. We knew it would work out well, as it was close to home and central and (in) a great neighborhood with a lot of people in the medical or health field,” Drosdowech says.

Drosdowech and her partner Jason Holland signed a three-year lease in 2019. “We had daily discussions about what we should do: when we should open, if we should open, was it going to get better? Worse? It was very hard to know what to do! We finally realized that we just needed to make it happen, as we needed the income, and we were one year into our lease.”

Drosdowech was able to take advantage of watching and learning from what others had done successfully during that year. “As our space is small, we were able to adjust how we were going to run and just move to pickup and takeout only. If we had a bigger space that relied on large groups of people, we would have had a much more difficult time,” Drosdowech says. 

“We also had the advantage of observing how other places were operating in the pandemic with the restrictions. The places who suddenly had to switch how they were operating would have had a very challenging time.”

Gâto opened on March 24 and has sold out every day. “I would like to say how thankful I am for all the support we received on our opening,” Gurbhoo says. 

Thyme has met with success as well. “Everyone has been amazing: customers, other business owners, suppliers, neighbours and old friends! It makes it all the challenges worthwhile and confirms that we made the right decision by opening. We are so grateful to once again be doing what we love,” Drosdowech says.

Published in Volume 75, Number 24 of The Uniter (March 31, 2021)

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