‘Listen Up! Local’ is a special series from Rise Up Podcasts that shines a spotlight on local businesses and their owners who have reinvented their businesses to not only survive but thrive amid COVID-19.
In this episode Rise Up Strategies CEO Adam Smith speaks to Gareth Davies, Founder and CEO, Maker House Co.
Adam: Today on Listen Up! Local, we are shining the spotlight on Maker House and the 200+ makers who call it home… it is a collaborative of all things creative in Hintonburg and Wellington West. And their leader has been described as a deal broker of makers. We are chatting with the ever-clever founder and owner of Maker House, Gareth Davies. So hello and welcome to the podcast Gareth.
Gareth: Thanks Adam. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Adam: So am I. Glad to have you. We’ll start off, that moniker is pretty awesome. A deal broker of makers. Tell me what that’s all about.
Gareth: Not self-stated, but I’ll take it as a positive. Really, it’s to the roots and the model of our business, Maker House. We started in 2015 as a popup shop. The mission is to bring the maker movement and makers of handmade Canadian goods, and bring that maker movement to main street in Ottawa. We started with 30 makers, grew to 50 and now we are up to over 200 different makers all across Canada and that’s a focus on homewares., furniture. A lot of people buy gifts at the store because they are practical functional items. We’ve expanded into food and drink, apparel, bath and body, kids toys. So if it’s made in Canada, we take a good luck at whether it fits into our mix. The deal broker side, we run our model like the traditional retail store for the most part. We purchase our items wholesale and we are just trying to grow the audience for handmade goods and conec the growing demand with the growing supply, I guess. We have done some really cool collaborations throughout the years as well where we work in partnership with makers like Gross Studios, which is a local non-profit social enterprise to produce some wooden wares, furniture or more recently, you know, a folding leather stool we produced with a leather worker and we did the woodworking side of it so it’s really fun to be at the heart of this Movement.
Adam: Well, it has to be one of my favourite stores just to walk into and see what’s new because it’s such a refreshing space. But I’m sure like so many businesses, particularly
During this situation with COVID 19, you’re having to make some pretty tough decisions. On this podcast in the past we talked about that dynamic between fight or flight, the difference between a business owner choosing to close down vs deciding to kind of pivot their business model and hopefully finding new and creative ways to offer products and services. And I’m curious to hear how you and Maker House have decided to weather this storm.
Gareth: That’s a good question, and that’s a good way to put it. I’ve thought about fight or flight myself a lot especially early on, when you’re making those big decisions and faced with this crushing change to the retail landscape, to the world really. So we decided to close our doors a week before it was mandated. We were pretty early on it but we were following the lead of other leading local businesses, a few of them were restaurants which makes sense. And what they had been hearing from public health and seeing in their businesses and same with us, that weekend before we closed was busy. We were told to social distance,we put messaging out that we were changing protocols saying if we could all distance we could make this work but we knew it wasn’t safe after that weekend so we need to lead and listen to public health. So in a sense that’s a bit of flight, but hopefully well thought out and thankfully we have a great website – how can we pivot to keep serving our customers. Early on we were able to do pickups at the door, which obviously is known as curbside pickup, everybody knows curbside pickup. One of those words. One of those new words in our dictionary, and bubble, and so many other COVID
Adam: COVID related words, yes. Self isolation.
Gareth: Isolation, is a big one. So we were able to do that. But that got mandated out pretty quickly. We were told not to do that anymore. So, at that point we had a decision, to either just let our shipping orders take over or get creative on bringing orders to customers through local delivery. That was a game-changing decision for us. I kind of again followed the lead of other local businesses. I’ve long looked to the craft brewery industry because they are ahead of the curve in business in so many ways and they were doing free local delivery. We basically did the same thing with a minimum order of $49. And what happened was quite remarkable. Our sales for April, we started this on March 25th. Our sales for April, and I feel guilty for saying this because I know what so many businesses have gone through, but we were up over last year, April to April. I was working 25 plus hours a week just as a delivery driver. And of course, that wasn’t part of my normal, you know, more than full time weeks previously but you do what you have to do and thankfully the orders were there and the support was there. I was delivering from Orleans to Kanata down to Barrhaven, my wife and my young son at home. She’s been amazingly supportive. I would have some days where I was out 10-12 hours. And eventually we evened it out, I was out 4 days a week for a little bit less and then eventually because it seemed to sustain, we brought a courier into the mix. Deliver Local is the delivery company. Also known as Ottawa Moving and Delivery. They also pivoted during this time and they actually reached out and got on our radar. They became critical partners to facilitate deliveries at peak Mother’s Day time in early May when we had built this up and I had our two leading staff in store supporting us as well obviously fulfilling, picking and packing these orders. Hundreds and hundreds of orders. Typical week would be 200 orders. But Mother’s Day week, right before we were in the 400 range for, just deliveries. Which, again, is mind-boggling. Now our May was up, at Mother’s Day significantly, and then after Mother’s Day dropped off pretty significantly. We ended up flat in May, down slightly. Again, that’s a big win when the world is in isolation. We pivoted in late May, I guess after 10-12 weeks of free delivery, we pivoted into opening curbside pickup as that was allowed. More changes to regulation but that was a positive change. So curbside opened up and we started charging $5 for local delivery so the volume reduced on the delivery side and increased on the curbside. Which is obviously quite a bit easier for us to facilitate. So, I’ve kind of given you the ups and downs so far. In March we were down unfortunately, but you know, to be expected when you are just adjusting. But like I said, April was up, May was pretty flat. So far in June we are down a little bit, not too bad.
Adam: Well, the lessons learned as a business owner. One of them I remember, my first boss ever saying “Don’t ever say it’s not in your job description”. And as a small business owner myself I can certainly relate to doing activities that are totally out of the ordinary.
I’m interested in hearing, there is a sense out there now that the economy is beginning to open. We’re entering phase 2 of the provincial government’s plans on reopening things and I’m just curious to hear, do you see any changes or lessons learned during this pandemic that might apply to your business moving forward, things you might do differently or just observations you have around how things will change moving forward for you?
Gareth: I love this question because, since the beginning, we have been asking as a society, like, ok, we get a chance to slow down and everybody is in this together, it’s global. Really unprecedented in the sense of, it’s a pause button on the daily grind, The rat race. Like, oh man, I hope we can come out of this with some big changes, actually address some of the systemic issues. I think that’s different than your question, of course. But, It is something that I have been thinking a lot about. I’d love to just comment that, I think the whole’ in this together’ element. We really have learned, everyone’s health relates to our health and the more we can help provide a social safety net and a thriving community for others, the more it’s going to provide a better safer community for us as well and I think that even applies in so many ways even to the anti racism protests happening now. And in countless other things so I really hope that continues. In terms of business changes, there are definitely things we have done that maybe short-term, like closing our doors completely, but as we re-open, we will probably be doing appointment-based shopping. We are getting our store ready, changing the flow of traffic completely. Obviously putting up plexiglass – which is universal, all of a sudden, nobody thought of that 3 mos ago. All these short term measures – masks and sanitization. Some of the things that I feel will last beyond COVID. Certainly Curbside pickup. We were doing a sort of Click-and-Collect before, an in-store pick up. There was a small trickle of volume and I sense that that will not be a switch that gets turned off. Throughout this year I think it’s going to be huge. I think we are anticipating that either making/breaking our year by offering that or not. And even how we offer it – what hours it’s available. What’s the experience like for people? Is it clear how to complete the purchase? So that will continue. The delivery, I’m not sure, we’ll see how the volume. I really hope so. Because I mentioned our partners that we are working with are super happy with that collaboration, that relationship. The delivery company we are working with is actually doing Woo Tang’s deliveries. So, Woo Tang in Ottawa is another random COVID change that I would like to see that relationship continue if they want to continue to be part of our community. They raised a bunch of money for the Ottawa Food Bank.
Then they started their own 26 chambers non-profit printing Ottawa Woo Tang t-shirts. Theyre selling hand sanitizer. They’re actually being printed by the sister company of our delivery company. And they are being delivered in a truck with our logo and Woo Tang’s logo on the side of this truck.
Adam: Whoa, that’s pretty cool
Gareth: A bucket list item I didn’t even know I had.
Adam: There you go. I have to say, too, a good friend, Adam Miron, was at the center of that Woo Tang initiative here in Ottawa. Small city after all.
Gareth: He sparked the whole thing. Yeah, he’s brought a lot of good into our city like financial support, through a Tweet. I am not a big Twitter fan but you’ve gotta give credit there. One of the biggest changes we’ve made is grown something we did before into a bigger offering for us is getting into gift boxes and specifically gift boxes that are shippable across Canada. This came into effect through Mother’s Day. So we made gift boxes for the first time, believe it or not, just last Christmas We have over 200 makers in our store. We can curate things into little boxes again from multiple different makers. We ended up selling actually a few hundred of these curated gift boxes and were writing the cards for people because they couldn’t actually physically get the gift in time to write the card and send it. We were just doing it all for them. So we actually got to connect with how they were wishing Happy Mother’s Day through this kind of painful Mother’s Day this year with the isolation in effect. But we were providing a connection for them and it was a way we could pivot from what we did before to provide value in the context of COVID and I think that will continue. Hopefully we want to stay more connected. We recognize the importance of that, even more so after this experience.
Adam: Well this is a lesson for all of us, is the importance of being connected and really the perils of, for that matter, being isolated and is at the top of everyone’s mind. An issue that has been around, of course, for many many years but is at the forefront for the first time, and rightfully so. Particularly given, as you say, whether its mothers or even for that matter, seniors who find themselves in precarious situations and don’t have anyone in their lives and so to bring a little joy into their lives is eminently important and something we should all strive to do.
Gareth: Yeah, well said.
Adam: You know, something that I love asking and hearing what people share on this question and only because for all of the difficulty and even tragedy people have experienced through this pandemic. There have been silver linings and I’m curious, if there are some things you’ve seen, perhaps in the broader community that is kind of insightful or just a moment of pause and positive reflection for you since this pandemic began. Does anything stick out to you from this perspective?
Gareth: Absolutely. Quite a few community collaborations. And really, it’s like a startup boom for our non-profit or community organization sector in Ottawa. You see organizations like Eco Equitable doing crowdfunding so they can make headbands supporting healthcare workers who are wearing masks that hurt their ears. So actually let me back this up. We have a program at Maker House called Craft Change. Since the beginning, when we started 5 years ago, we donate 2% of our gross revenue to different non-profit each quarter and we pick a new partner we want to work with, get to know, collaborate, and cross-promote. So thankfully we have been growing our revenue each year. And we have donated around $100,000. We’re coming up on that so we will have to do a celebration when that happens. Partners like Parkdale Food Centre, Ottawa Tool Library. We also work with places, not necessarily a formal non-profit like Hijinx, the social enterprise store that is an antique store but they are really a drop-in center for neighbours around Centretown and Downtown who are homeless or low-income and need anything from food to advice on navigating the system. We work with partners like this which is our version of social enterprise diverting revenue from our business into the community. So Craft Change got a revamp when COVID hit, it seemed like, “ok, this is what this program was made for so how can we kind of pivot Craft Change, our corporate social enterprise or social responsibility program. So we looked at the next 6 mos. – two quarters down the road. What would we have given last year and it was around $10,000. We’ve upped that to $15,000 and said instead of waiting for those quarters to end and then donating 2% of what we sold. We are just going to allocate that money and start giving it out, not to one organization or two organizations but to split it up to all these small community collaborations . It felt like that was the right thing to do with Craft Change when it’s not about Salvation Army carrying us through this thing or sheltering us in a school gym or whatever. It’s about small, remote community collaborations. So, a couple that come to mind, and we have donated to, are Project Ramsia, which is food prep and delivery, primarily for seniors but I think that project blew up to a much broader group that they are serving. It was started by the owners of, I believe, the Waverly restaurant. Another food-related… I know, incredible…10’s of thousands of meals through these programs from restaurants that are not even able to operate and sell their products. It’s incredibly inspiring. Another one that came out of Coconut Lagoon restaurant and they started working with other restaurants like North & Navy is called Food for Thought. That was actually started last year by the owners of Coconut Lagoon but it got expanded during COVID and hyper-focused around food insecurity, food delivery, and again, over 20,000 meals. By the time we made our contribution to them they were already at that mark and we’re not making game-changing contributions. It’s $500, $1,000, $1,500 here and there but a big part of this is spotlighting these for our customers as well so they know what’s going on in their community. That’s a role we play with our platform. We have always been more than a store.We want to connect people to other people to what’s happening in the community. The last one I will mention is Parkdale Food Center has an incredibly innovative model where they’re working with restaurants who are able to bring their staff back because Parkdale is paying them for healthy food that can be prepared and delivered, often frozen for meals later on and delivered now through over 24 organizations that started with just Parkdale, maybe Somerset West Community Health Centre and a few other ones around the city like Dalhousie and it’s really grown into now, 24 organizations that are leveraging, it’s called Cooking for a Cause and picking up food directly from these restaurants. So Somerset West might do a van run that picks up food at Thyme & Again and also Marcie’s Place or Red Apron. And again, there’s many more restaurants like Arlington 5, Wellington Gastropub and, they’re providing…it’s free to these organizations or maybe there’s a nominal fee paid through Parkdale or funders, I think Community Foundation of Ottawa is involved. Just incredibly innovative, solving multiple problems on the food insecurity side for vulnerable members of our community. Parkdale actually fulfilling their mission that way and restaurants hiring workers back to do this. It makes you think, again, could this continue? It will be very interesting to see if that has a place , that kind of collaboration in the post-COVID world.
Adam: Well, both interesting and inspiring. I have to say Gareth, not only are you an exceptional business leader but clearly a community leader as well and Ottawa is much stronger for having you and Maker House here. I want to say thank you so much for taking the time out of your day. It was great to meet you. Everyone here at Rise Up Strategies is a huge fan of Maker House. We all shop there, we always love to see cool stuff that’s available.
Gareth: Thank you
Adam: Can’t wait to be back in that store in the weeks and months ahead. Thank you so much again. You can find Gareth and the rest of the merry makers at Maker House located at 987 Wellington Street West and online at https://makerhouse.com
Gareth: Thanks for having me Adam. So great to be here.