Protests deal another blow to reeling downtown businesses, merchants say

Hotel association suggests trucker convoy could continue for a while as some protesters book rooms for next weekend
Ahmet Oktar
Happy Goat co-owner Ahmet Oktar says the chain closed its location at the corner of Rideau and Cumberland streets because employees felt unsafe being in the thick of the protests. Photo courtesy Ahmet Oktar

After a January that was the toughest grind of his entrepreneurial career, Happy Goat Coffee co-owner Ahmet Oktar was hoping the return of in-person dining at his chain of Ottawa shops on Monday would be just what the barista ordered to lift his flagging business’s fortunes.

But any hopes he had of something of a return to normalcy as the latest round of COVID restrictions were set to be lifted quickly evaporated as this past weekend’s truckers convoy delivered another blow in what’s already been a bruising start to 2021.

As a crowd estimated at as many as 8,000 people jammed the downtown core on Saturday, Happy Goat closed its location at the corner of Rideau and Cumberland streets because employees said they felt unsafe being in the thick of the protests. 

The store’s doors remained shut on Monday, costing the chain “thousands of dollars” in lost sales during a month in which it was already struggling to generate enough cash flow to pay the rent, Oktar said.

“I’m trying to be optimistic,” he said, but conceded it’s a tough ask as the chain’s overall revenues have plummeted nearly 70 per cent from December. “We’re trying our best … but we have limited resources.”

To add to Oktar’s woes, Happy Goat also shut down its Elgin Street shop just an hour and a half after opening on Saturday, when “very aggressive” customers began threatening the store’s employees, he said.

Workers 'scared'

“Of course, (the workers) were scared,” Oktar explained. “I said, ‘You know what? Let’s close down.’”

He and co-owner Henry Assad worked Sunday’s shift at the Elgin Street shop themselves. Oktar said the steady flow of coffee-buyers was generally well-behaved, with only a couple of unmasked customers in the mix.

Back at 50 per cent capacity on Monday morning, the Elgin location was doing a brisk business.

“Everybody’s friendly and happy, it looks like,” Oktar said as he surveyed the store.

If the latest COVID restrictions had lasted much longer, Happy Goat likely would have been forced to permanently shutter a couple of its 12 Ottawa locations, he added. But with the number of protesters dwindling on Monday, customers back in stores and the chain’s kiosk in the Rideau LRT station poised to reopen this week after being shut for most of January, he was trying his best to look on the bright side.

"I have to be optimistic. We’ll see how it goes."

“I have to be optimistic,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes.”

Like restaurants and coffee shops, the city’s hospitality industry has also suffered through a bleak start to the year. The president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association said that while visitors in town for the protests helped make it a “busy weekend” for many hoteliers, that bump in business came at a cost.

“I don't know that I would qualify anything as an upside,” said Steve Ball, noting there were “a lot” of calls to Ottawa police to deal with problems like vandalism and threats against staff.

“There was quite a bit of abuse, but it came from a small minority,” he said, adding that many guests refused to wear masks. “Staff were concerned about their safety.”

Some properties resorted to hiring private security officers as incidents of violence and vandalism escalated, he said, adding many hotels began running out of supplies after gridlocked downtown roadways forced a halt to deliveries.

“It was a challenging weekend for sure,” Ball said.

Meanwhile, near the heart of the protests, the Sparks Street Mall was a virtual ghost town on Saturday and Sunday as all but a handful of the pedestrian plaza’s 50 or so shops, pubs and restaurants opted not to open their doors for safety and security reasons, said Kevin McHale, the executive director of the street’s business improvement area.

While some establishments such as Bier Markt and D’Arcy McGee’s planned to reopen Monday once indoor dining resumed, McHale said many businesses on the strip were still waiting with bated breath to see if the bulk of the rallies were over.

“There’s not a lot we can do at this point,” he added. “Our hope here is that a lot of these (protesters) are small business owners as well and they hopefully see and recognize the impact they’re starting to have on businesses in the downtown core and residents in the core. It’s been hard here. They’ve been listening to horns for 48 straight hours.”

'Another hit' to downtown

McHale said he felt the protesters – who represent truckers opposed to new federal regulations requiring drivers to have two COVID-19 vaccine doses to cross the Canada-U.S. border, as well as others who want all pandemic rules scrapped – had “made their point” and sticking around would only undermine their message.

“We’re just looking for this to be over now,” McHale said Monday morning. “It’s just another hit that the downtown’s had to experience over the last almost two years. 

“We want (the pandemic) to be over, too – trust me. Stuff like this doesn't really help get past it.”

But Ball said some protesters who’d vacated downtown hotel rooms this past weekend were planning to return next weekend, suggesting the demonstrations could continue for a while yet.

“We don’t think this is going to resolve itself any time soon,” he said. “We’re anxious to see what transpires this week.”