The Pandemic Inspired Peope To Make ChANGES
Whether they started brand new enterprises or adjusted their business strategies or offerings, these four companies have reinvented themselves with an eye to the future.
You know what they say: Necessity is the mother of invention. Dealing with a global pandemic couldn’t have made this more obvious. The folks in the stories below either pivoted their businesses or created brand-new opportunities to get them through — and beyond — COVID. Today, they’re each poised to continue making a splash in their respective fields.
Debbie Nightingale and Shain Jaffe didn’t start out as farmers. In fact, they were busy working in TV and film production, living in Toronto. But decided they needed a change of pace. They bought a farm in Campbellford, Ont., 15 years ago. Nightingale wanted to raise animals and Jaffe was keen to have a peaceful place to relax on weekends (the two continued to work in Toronto, commuting during the week). They moved out there full-time 13 years ago, and in 2015, with four Nigerian Dwarf goats on the farm, they decided to bid adieu to their old life and buy a 200-acre farm in Port Hope.
Haute Goat is their own little slice of heaven. Here, they’ve had more than 300 goats born, plus they’ve raised Icelandic horses, exotic chickens, alpacas, Tornjak livestock guardian dogs and other animals. Ever the successful executives, they also built a thriving business — offering out-of-towners and locals a true farm experience. Prior to the pandemic, Haute Goat saw visitors most days for tours, trail walking, special events, interactive workshops (how to milk goats and goat-milk soapmaking), as well as a plethora of activities perfect for families, including the signature experiences the farm is known for: “Shmurgling” and the Alpaca Knuffle Shuffle. (The former is a term the couple coined to describe cuddling their goats, while the latter experience lets guests walk an alpaca along the trails.) Throw in goat yoga, Nightingale’s handmade small-batch goat milk skincare products and the Screaming Goat Café (their onsite eatery) and you’ve got the recipe for the perfect day in the country and a thriving business.
Fast-forward to March 2020 and Nightingale and Jaffe found themselves in a serious dilemma. “We were gobsmacked like everyone else. We grappled with what was going to happen to us — would we have to shut down?” says Nightingale. Spring is a busy time on a farm, and the couple had been fully booked for experiences. “We found people were super supportive, telling us not to worry about issuing a refund and said they’d reschedule. That sure helped a lot.” After the closure, when things started to open back up, they had to re-evaluate how they’d deliver their experiences. “They’re the heart and soul of the operation — connecting and engaging with the animals. We knew we’d have to operate on a smaller scale, since, at the time, just five people were allowed to be together and we were used to taking out groups of 60 to 80 for shmurgling,” she explains. The couple raised their price by $20 per person to mitigate having smaller groups. “We knew we had a unique, high-quality offering so we decided to see if the market agreed with us. We were shocked and delighted that people didn’t miss a beat. They were appreciative that they could socially distance. They felt comfortable coming back.”
During COVID they’ve come up with inventive ways to welcome locals and visitors. Not only are shmurgles and knuffle shuffles continuing, they’ve added a disc golf course to the property and have started alpaca sleepovers, where guests can stay overnight in the bunkie right inside the alpaca pen. In August 2021, the team hosted Goatchella, which included a pink-tie dinner, live music, goat races and vendors. The café transitions to takeout when indoor dining is closed; chefs created a menu filled with farm-to-table wraps and soups. They got licensed last fall and sell primarily local wines and ales.
“We have all sorts of plans in the works for 2022. It’s important to us to make our animals and nature accessible to guests,” Nightingale says. “We’re coming out guns blazing and have really appreciated all of the support we’ve received from our community.”
“We knew we had a unique, high-quality offering so we decided to see if the market agreed with us. We were shocked and delighted that people didn’t miss a beat. They were appreciative that they could socially distance themselves. They felt comfortable coming back.”
GIRL BOSS CHESS
Ingrid Gayle had been teaching chess to Toronto elementary-school students before March 2020. She was working for a male-dominated chess company that saw few women like her teaching — in fact, she was one of the only mothers in the organization. When the pandemic hit, she was asked if she could pivot online. So, within a few days, Gayle had a host of online classes she had to deliver.
Around the same time, news of a derogatory remark made by one of Gayle’s male colleagues was circulating — the comment was that women and girls shouldn’t play chess when on their periods. “I have two daughters and I couldn’t imagine this person teaching my girls. This was the straw that ultimately broke the camel’s back. I knew I needed to create a space just for girls — a space that wasn’t male-dominated where girls could thrive.”
Girl Boss Chess was born on a camping trip. Gayle and her partner Patrick Kavanagh talked out the company and sat by the fire coming up with names. They envisioned Girl Boss Chess as the only online collective that could empower girls through playing chess. When they got home, they had to see if the idea had legs. “There’s a virtual group for the Black community in Toronto where you can post business listings. The first ping I got was asking if we teach women. I hadn’t thought about it but said yes. So, for our pilot program we taught women the sport. We launched Chess for Queens, then three weeks later, The Queen’s Gambit hit on Netflix. We had no idea what was coming,” she says. Kavanagh moved onto team Girl Boss Chess full time. “I saw the zeitgeist shift when that show came out. You have a powerful woman lead just crushing men at the chess table so elegantly. Plus, people were already gathering on Zoom and doing things online was going to be huge. And what’s more, we were in the middle of a women’s movement. It was the perfect soup and we recognized that there was a way to empower women through chess,” he says.
Girl Boss Chess officially launched in January 2021, and today, grandmasters, women international masters, women FIDE masters and other high-level chess players are teaching women and girls on the platform. (There are 26 teachers from 16 countries and collectively they speak six languages.) When their story came out in the media, Gayle says they received a tidal wave of girls coming into the program. Using Chess Steps curriculum, which is embraced by the Royal Dutch Chess Federation, Gayle’s team has adapted the delivery and they plan on developing their own curriculum made by women for women. “For beginners, we deliver a set of six classes using the six chess pieces as the stars of each class. We tell a story that deals with Medieval history of the piece so there’s a holistic understanding — so players don’t just see a plastic piece, they see a castle and merlons. We talk a lot about the queen and empowerment. We excite them about playing chess and the stories are positive experiential gateways,” says Gayle. Students range in age from four to 74, but the average age of girls who is eight, which Gayle says is prime time to get girls into the sport.
Gayle and Kavanagh are also busy working with partners that are aligned with their mission and values, including Advancing Girls in San Diego, Girls Inc., Girl Up (the United Nation foundation for girls) and Ingenium Museum in Ottawa. They recently created a new program called Girl Boss Chess Playland, which allows students to gather on Sunday afternoons to play other girls and practice their skills. “What’s really beautiful is to see these girls who weren’t given the opportunity to play chess and to see how many of them love it and just want to play. Who knows how this will impact their lives as they grow. Chess has been proven to help with math and reading skills, plus it builds so much confidence,” says Gayle. “I wish I’d had it growing up.”
Port Hope’s Poho Boho atelier was born about a year after Kim Miller had an a-ha moment. Her friend, a tattoo artist, has a shop on busy Walton Street in Port Hope, but when the pandemic hit, she had to close. “We were chatting, and I had a great idea — I told her I’d help her out by leasing the space for six months to do a pop-up because retail was still allowed to be open,” says Miller. “I’m an entrepreneur and I’d always wanted to open a community hub where I’d have Northumberland artists showing their wares. I wanted to celebrate everything bohemian and local. It seemed like the perfect time, since a lot of artists didn’t have anywhere to sell their work with markets closed during COVID.” She reached out and pitched her proposal to local artists. It was a hit and Miller took a leap.
In July 2020, she started Poho Boho with 12 local artists, including Carolyn Scatterty, founder of On Second Thought Upcycling and her current business partner. “I adored Carolyn’s upcycling. She reimagines textiles, thrift and vintage pieces and turns them into one-of-a-kind pieces,” says Miller. “We launched and the shop did really well. Carolyn was selling more out of Poho Boho than any other outlet. She would hang out at the store. She liked interacting with the customers and we became fast friends.”
When December rolled around and Miller’s lease was up, she and Scatterty got to talking about how they could keep Poho Boho alive. “I was destroyed when the six months was over. I didn’t want to stop doing what we were doing — it was just going so well,” says Scatterty. Around the same time, Scatterty had to move out of the studio space she was leasing. “All I could find was retail space. Kim and I talked about it, and we decided to find a storefront downtown and keep the business going — we’d partner to keep Poho Boho, and I’d have my studio right in the store.”
The pair found the perfect location, right across the street from the tattoo shop. “We kept the same concept and sustainability angle. We are all about re-loved, reclaimed and reimagined pieces with a boho vibe. Whether it’s clothing or furniture, everything is a one-of-a-kind piece,” says Miller. Both partners say customers love coming in to hang around the store and shop, try things on and just enjoy. “We wanted a place where people would come and hang out — a community hub of likeminded people who could express themselves here,” says Scatterty. There are currently about 10 makers in the space, but the store is always changing. “As things sell, I redesign. I love to look at the space and try to figure out how to transform it,” says Miller. “All textiles and furniture have a history and energy and when you give it more energy and love, people are attracted to it.” The makers in the shop — Scatterty included — are just as thrilled as the customers; many had to pivot to social media when the pandemic hit, but Poho Boho gets them in front of clients. “We’ve been told there’s a joyful energy in the store,” they both say. “We tend to live in the moment and let it evolve.”
“We have loved watching people trust our art enough to be one of tthe only pairs of big, bright earrings in their collection. It has been a reflective journey to unpack this, but it has inspired a lot of growth in both of us.”