Surviving and Thriving on Main Street: Vanier’s Jacobsons adjusts operations during pandemic

Dominique Jacobson
Dominique Jacobson at her Vanier speciality grocery store. (Photo by Mark Holleron)
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For Dominique Jacobson, operating her artisan grocery store during the pandemic has meant balancing safety and hospitality. 

“We never wanted to lose the connection with any of our customers during this time,” Jacobson said, adding she wanted to preserve the store’s culture of hospitality in a way that made everyone feel safe.

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The Jacobsons family business goes back nearly 50 years. Susan Jacobson started out selling a variety of specialty foods at markets in Quebec City and Montreal before opening a storefront in 2005. The Beechwood Avenue shop sells a variety of fine foods and artisanal grocery items from across Canada and the world, including cheeses, baked goods, fresh bread and specialty packaged meals.

Dominique Jacobson, who earned her business degree from Queen’s University, decided to take over the family business with her husband Marcus in 2015.

“Every summer I’ve worked at the family businesses – my life has always been intertwined with them,” she said.

The store relocated down the street from its former location in December 2019. Jacobson said it was important for the business to stay in the community, as they wanted to “continue creating and building a home for everybody who has continued to support us over the years.”

COVID-19 changes operations

In the early days of the pandemic in February, Jacobson was keeping a close eye on COVID-19 and planning her store’s response.

“I made sure I was on the floor watching, understanding and communicating with the entire team. That was an important piece of the puzzle early on.”

Despite being deemed an essential service and permitted to stay open, Jacobson voluntarily closed her store to public browsing in March in order to do her part to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Jacobson knew the business would need to pivot. She credits her “amazing and dedicated team,” which helped to modify the company’s website for online shopping in just 72 hours.

Like many businesses, Jacobsons switched to contactless, curbside delivery early on. It also launched a “more spontaneous” takeout service for customers stopping by the store, in which a team member would shop the store and bring items out to them.

Home delivery

While Jacobson already had a platform set up for home delivery of its gift baskets and catering trays, food delivery services became a “wonderful” way for the grocer to expand its services. Jacobson has partnered with food delivery services such as Trexity and Swift to get their products directly to customers’ homes.

“It is exciting to see these local delivery services emerge, and there is a great demand for them right now. It’s really important that we have people we can trust to quickly and safely ship our products,” Jacobson said.

The delivery services have allowed Jacobsons to expand its cheese-of-the-month club, which grew in popularity during the pandemic. Additionally, the store offers Canada-wide shipping of shelf-stable food items through FedEx or Canada Post.

Store reopening

When restrictions on businesses were eased this summer, Jacobsons prepared to safely welcome customers back into the store. It strengthened already strict handwashing policies, went cashless and implemented a masking policy for employees before the provincial government made it mandatory.

It also installed protective Plexiglas barriers and creative signs promoting physical distancing.

“When you say, ‘stay six feet apart,’ everybody’s interpretation of what that is can be different,” Jacobson said. “The average (adult) cow is almost eight feet long, so we had fun signs saying to please remember to keep one dairy cow’s length away from each other.”

Jacobson says she is “incredibly thankful and appreciative” for the support Ottawa has shown small businesses during the pandemic.

“Everybody had to do their best to listen, learn quickly and adapt to the circumstances,” she said. “I am so encouraged by seeing how the city has responded, and there’s lots to be applauded.”

Surviving and Thriving on Main Street is an editorial series profiling Ottawa businesses finding success through entrepreneurial creativity and innovation in the face of challenges and adversity.

Digital Main Street (DMS) helps small businesses impacted by COVID-19 in Ontario to recover and grow. Through government-funded programs such as Future Proof, main street businesses (restaurant, retail shops, skilled trades, and home-based businesses) can access their own digital squad, business advisors and training resources – for free. Develop digital ads, create a new online business model, or set up a digital marketing strategy for your business – all free through Digital Main Street.  

Learn more about Digital Main Street programming by visiting Invest Ottawa's DMS website.