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Popular cafe transforms into community grocer to survive pandemic

PAVIA Gallery-Espresso Bar & Café's business during the height of the pandemic was almost all grocery-related, but since the café component has been resurrected it’s essentially equally divided between the two services

Like many business owners, Christopher Webb and Victoria Foulger have had work-related challenges since their art gallery and coffee bar launched in Herring Cove in 2011.

After a self-described slow start, their little enterprise grew, locations opened in Halifax and more employees were hired.

The resourceful couple’s PAVIA Gallery-Espresso Bar & Café became a popular spot in Herring Cove with art lovers, coffee drinkers and others. A locally-sourced catering menu was available, too.

In 2014, Webb and Foulger expanded their family-run business with two sites inside the Halifax Central Library, and followed that about a year later with one in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Fast-forward to this spring, when the coronavirus pandemic reached Atlantic Canada. The provincial government declared a state of emergency on March 22, and local businesses were hit hard.

Webb said recently that PAVIA’s café at the province’s art gallery closed first. He said the province gave him about 90 minutes to vacate the public building.

The busy library locations ceased to operate when the popular landmark was also shuttered due to COVID-19. As well, PAVIA’s catering service quickly dried up with the cancellation of meetings, conferences and other events in the Halifax region.

Before the virus crisis arrived in this province, Webb and Foulger had about 35 workers.

Now, after first reinventing their business many weeks ago – the Herring Cove site started operating as a community grocery in a matter of days – and following the June 5 reopening of much of Nova Scotia’s economy, Webb said nine people are employed (including himself and Foulger).

PAVIA’s business during the height of the pandemic was almost all related to the grocery, he said, but since the café component has been resurrected it’s essentially equally divided between the two services. And the place has been busy, Webb said.

“Some (customers) have been coming for three months, . . . because we really never closed,” he said Wednesday. “There’s also a lot of people who didn’t realize we were open during the time” when many businesses had to shut down, said Webb.

He said a maximum of 15 customers at a time can be managed inside PAVIA’s Herring Cove site.

Foodservice managers and other business operators have acknowledged there are safety-conscious consumers and employees anxious about the reemergence of commerce. That’s because not everyone follows public-health instructions properly, or at all.

Reopening the stay-on-site element of the foodservice sector doesn’t just affect indoor dining or coffee-sipping. Patio season in the Halifax area is upon us, as are health-and-safety rules governing their use.

As always, a permit from Halifax Regional Municipality is required to provide tables and chairs for weather-dependent outside dining. But the fee for such a licence has been waived this year, after Halifax council voted in May to temporarily shelve the
charge to operators.

Seating is limited at indoor and outdoor eateries and cafes, and fewer-than-normal customers and staffers must get used to whatever changes have accompanied reopenings. Restaurant owners know reduced capacity equals lower sales of meals,
non-alcoholic beverages and liquor.

The foodservice industry’s national association, Restaurants Canada, has developed a “rapid recovery” guide for use by business operators. The group says about 800,000 jobs were lost in the sector across the country due to COVID-19, a figure that’s based on a survey the organization did early this spring.

Patrick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, said late last month area business owners would be vigilant during the reopening process.

“Don’t hesitate to go to (a) restaurant, because they’re going to be, frankly, the cleanest place on Earth,” he told NEWS 95.7. “Restaurants have always been clean, but just think of what they’re doing now to ensure the safety of the patrons.”

Last weekend, Sullivan was happy and relieved to see hospitality businesses reopen but said: “We’re not out of the woods yet.” He encouraged Halifax-area residents and others in the province to go out to restaurants.

“Nova Scotia gets two million visits a year – roughly twice our population – and we’re absolutely not going to get that this year,” he said in an interview on NEWS 95.7.

Business operators here are hopeful, but the reality is many customers who used to frequent restaurants and cafes aren’t  comfortable returning to these places quite yet.

In Herring Cove, before the pandemic forced the transformation of PAVIA, visitors inside the cafe were seated near works of art created by local artists, and could choose from such menu items as cappuccino, soups, sandwiches and pastries.

Webb said the grocery part of the business includes an online shopping component and offers such goods as bread, local produce and dairy products. Social-distancing rules have applied to customers and staff, he said.

(Take-out orders of hot beverages and food have been available during the coronavirus crisis.)

The reopening opportunity has led to seating and customer-service adjustments, in the name of public health. Webb’s early-days assessment of how things have gone at his gallery/coffee bar in Herring Cove is positive.

“There’s a lot of people that are just pleased that they can come and sit down,” he said.

Webb said the health and safety of customers and staff are paramount.

“What we do, is we do our best,” he told HalifaxToday.ca.

Prior to COVID-19, Webb and Foulger had nine tables placed inside their Herring Cove location, a layout that accommodated about 28 customers. In summer, another five tables would be set up outside, said Webb.

Since reestablishing the dine-in part of their business on June 6, he said, two tables accommodating up to seven patrons are inside and none are outdoors. There are spots available on benches and chairs outside.

Aside from the business he co-owns with Foulger, Webb is an artist and a visual-arts commentator on television with Global News Morning in Halifax. Being imaginative helped with the management of PAVIA during the COVID-19 outbreak, he has said.

“The way we run things, and our business, is creatively. Creative people face challenges all of the time and come up with creative solutions,” Webb said in an alumni news interview posted last month on Saint Mary’s University’s website.

He said safety protocols mean the ice cream stand at his Herring Cove location won’t open this summer. But he and Foulger have bought a freezer and are selling family- size tubs and individual-size containers to consumers.

“As a business, we want to make sure that we’ve set it up that there’s social distancing. That’s the main thing,” said Webb. “So that’s what we’re providing people.”

Michael Lightstone is a freelance reporter living in Dartmouth



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About the Author: Michael Lightstone

During a general-news career lasting close to 30 years, Michael LIghtstone has covered such things as politics, health matters, courts, labour issues and jazz concerts
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