Toronto cafe moves business online with help from Google-boosted ShopHERE program

William Arsn

After four years and a half years, the owners of Plentea, a local tea cafe in downtown Toronto has decided to close its doors because of COVID-19. However, they will keep doing business online with the help of a local program for small businesses.

Tariq Al Barwani, co-owner of Plentea, said that when social distancing measures were imposed by the government, their shop’s sales “took a big slump.”

“I’d literally come in the store at 9 am and nobody would walk through our door until 12 pm,” Al Barwani said. “People are in quarantine so they wouldn’t come out.”

Customers seemed to be more comfortable ordering online. 

Al Barwani’s company is a member of the Digital Main Street, created by the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Area, and heard of the ShopHERE program. 

The program, which is supported by a group of business partners including Google, MasterCard, Microsoft, and Shopify, helps independent and small businesses move their operations online. Plentea decided to use it to shift its business.

“It was pretty evident in the past three months of COVID has destroyed quite a bit of our sales and the next best thing for us to do was to take on retail sales purely online,” Al Barwani said.

Before, Plentea would make beverages to order; now, they only offer its loose-leaf blends to purchase online. 

On May 28, Google (GOOG) announced it is committing $1 million to expand the program nationally with a pledge to get 50,000 Canadian small businesses online this year. Part of this pledge also includes offering digital skills and training needed to participate in the digital economy, a press release said. 

ShopHERE launched in early May and since then, Toronto’s Mayor John Tory, in a press release, indicated that over 1,000 Toronto businesses have signed up to expand their digital presence. 

“We must do everything we can to support our main street small businesses and help them survive this crisis,” he said. 

Al Barwani said that with the help of a consultant, he was able to set up his website and store within a day. 

“We just launched about a week ago and I’m already seeing traction,” he said.

“It’s true that we are closing, but customers come in the door and we tell them that we are now selling tea online through our website. People are thrilled because just because we’re closing doesn’t mean they can’t get their favourite tea.”

Al Barwani expressed gratitude for the program helping to keep his business going.

“Anybody that is thinking about going live [online] should not underestimate the power of having somebody that knows what they’re doing on your side of the court helping you push through,” he said. 

In order to be eligible for the program, businesses must pay commercial property taxes in Toronto and must have less than 10 employees. The business also has to be independent and not part of a chain or franchise. 

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