SHILO — Celebrating its second anniversary in CFB Shilo, Cursed Coffee has been adapting to and navigating the COVID-19 pandemic since it first opened its doors.
The coffee shop initially launched in early December 2019, taking over Forbidden Flavours at the Canex Mall in Shilo. It has been an interesting experience being a new business owner during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Rayna Moffat.
"I have nothing else to compare it to. I don’t know what it’s like to own a business ... [before] COVID," Moffat said. "It’s a lot of having to pivot and having to think quickly and change quickly."
When she initially took over the cafe, a full kitchen was added so they can do more baking and offer more items on the food menu. A dining room has also been added to the space.
Moffat said a number of renovations were undertaken because she wanted to enhance the space for the community.
It was a scary project to undertake during the pandemic because they invested a significant amount of money to secure equipment and renovations, but were uncertain if they would get a return on the investment.
Moffat said she had always wanted to launch her own coffee shop — her passion lies in baking, and coffee made the perfect companion.
"It was something I always wanted to do and have a cute little coffee shop and bakery. I found myself in a position where I could change career paths.
"I’ve always loved baking and I’ve always loved the food industry. Restaurants are high stress and when you’re busy, you’re so busy that you can’t think. It’s a rush and I always like that."
Owning the shop adds a new layer to her hospitality experience as she gets to serve customers, but now has to go home and do payroll and set up orders and complete other paperwork.
"I get the best of both worlds where I can get into my finance background and do the quiet things, but also we do have the rush here," Moffat said.
She opted to call the shop Cursed Coffee, because she felt like it was the perfect name — it was a blessing to open the shop, but the timing also felt like a bit of a curse.
As a specialty coffee shop, everything at Cursed Coffee is handmade and all of the drinks and food are made to order. Moffat takes great pride in the secret chai tea recipe — it is made from a carefully crafted chai concentrate unique to Cursed Coffee. It took about four recipes until they got it perfect.
The first year is always the hardest for a new business, and that was only made more true by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cursed Coffee has been in a unique position during the pandemic. Because it is located on a military base, it is regulated differently compared to its provincial counterparts. This also impacted their ability to qualify for programs offered during the pandemic to help businesses weather the global health crisis.
Another challenge — but also a perk — is her business directly correlates with the movement of the military.
"In the summer, if they’re on exercise in Wainwright, my sales go down, or if they need to be shipped off to help with forest fires in B.C., my sales go down," Moffat said. "On the same token, when everybody was out of work, the army still had work and they still had a paycheque coming in, so I still had customers."
This affected their first two months of operations, Moffat said, because most military personnel were on break.
"Usually on the second week of December, everyone leaves on holiday. A few people stay behind, but the majority of them leave, so my business cuts probably in half in December."
By the time they returned, the effects of COVID-19 were starting to be felt at Cursed Coffee.
It is rare for an independent coffee shop to be located on a Canadian Forces base, Moffat said. To her knowledge, CFB Shilo is one of the only ones without a Tim Hortons and this can impact what customers expect when they visit the shop.
"People are coming from across Canada to Shilo and they are used to their Tims — and I’m not Tims," Moffat said. "I don’t have a huge infrastructure to have all of the equipment and machines that they have and I don’t have the staff that they have. With COVID, our resources are really limited."
Health measures have also been more stringent on the base, Moffat said. For example, Shilo was mandated to wear masks long before the rest of Manitoba was.
"Having to enforce the rules of wearing masks on base was hard. We have civilians that come through and they’re not necessarily familiar with the fact that the base rules are different," Moffat said. "Even though you didn’t have to wear a mask in restaurants in Brandon, you did in Shilo. That was a weird time trying to differentiate the rules between Shilo [as a federal entity] rather than provincial."
She added there was added pressure because as a small business, they were navigating routes for financial support during the global health crisis. This was challenging as she had just bought the business and could not compare sales from previous years because overnight they became a completely different business.
She noted the shop has not been immune to the rising production costs and supply chain issues during the pandemic.
At one point, the cafe was unable to get hot sauce for a few months because the supplier did not have enough plastic to make the lids for the product. These obstacles have forced them to learn how to cope with shortages.
"Sometimes I have to pay more for stuff. I can’t buy the thing in bulk because they don’t have it, so I need to pay more for things because I don’t have an option," Moffat said.
This in turn has increased already rising costs. Moffat said the cost of coffee has increased 10-fold, and something as simple as a case of lettuce has increased by about $30 in the last few months.
The shop has also encountered the rising costs of sanitization supplies and personal protective equipment.
"Your margins are very thin unless you want to pass on the costs to customers."
The shop currently has six staff members, most of whom are students. It is a great team, she added, because three previously worked at Forbidden Flavours and have played a major role in the success of the shop.
"They’re great," Moffat said. "My staff make everything worth it. If I’m having a bad day … they’re always there to cheer me up, and if they’re busy, we’re all a big family and we work together. They’re the best part."
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