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Adapting to a changing landscape

Two years after opening, Bay Village Coffee is still going strong.
Bay Village Coffee Follow-up
(Photo by Ayano Hodouchi-Dempsey)

THUNDER BAY -- For owners Gary Mack and Alan Forbes, it has been a continuous adventure since Bay Village Coffee opened in June 2018.

The couple started out small, with Forbes working at the cafe while Mack still worked a full-time job, baking and cooking in his spare time. “When we first started, we didn’t know what’s going to happen. We would have been happy if we’d gotten one wage out of it, but we found out right away we were going to be too busy to juggle other jobs,” says Mack.

Bay Village Coffee struck a chord and quickly became a very busy business. Mack left his job to focus on the coffee shop and they started hiring more staff. In addition to serving customers at their location on 221 Bay street, they became a thriving caterer, making baked goods, sandwiches and trays for special events, breakfasts and lunches.

The words “work/life balance” elicits a hoot of laughter from the two, and they say that’s a work in progress. “We’ve been working 24/7, honestly. But that’s the life of an entrepreneur, right? You take a chance, and there’s no one else but you. So it’s a totally different lifestyle for us. But no regrets at all, absolutely not,” says Mack.

When COVID restrictions hit, they laid off all their staff - but ended up calling them back within a week. They now have five people working full time at the shop, but to protect their staff, Mack and Forbes are the only ones interacting with customers, providing carhop service. People can call in their order, order online, or just drive to the coffee shop to get their usual coffees, baked goods and sandwiches.

Customers are appreciative, Mack says. “People have been thanking us for being open,” he says. “We learned that we have amazing customers, who really care about our business being successful.”

“At first, we had customers really concerned about us and they came in just to support us, to make sure we were going to be okay,” explains Forbes.

The past few months have been a steep learning curve, and they have also learned how resilient they are. When the lockdown first started, they did deliveries all over town, and they set up their online ordering system in a day.

“The very first week [of the lockdown] when everything was so uncertain, Matawa ordered 6,000 cookies,” Forbes says.

“That night, they called and wanted 1,200 cookies for the next day. ‘How are we going to do it?’ We asked ourselves,” recalls Mack. “The stores didn’t have anything and we couldn’t get more baking supplies. Alan and I were here until 2:30 a.m. making those cookies.”

“And they [Matawa] came back for more, again and again,” Forbes says.

“Thunder Bay is such an amazing place,” says Mack.

“One of the things that came out of this [pandemic] is a strong push to support local,” Forbes explains. “We have customers who used to go to Starbucks and now they come to us because they want to support local. And that’s super.”

Spending your money at a local coffee shop doesn’t just help them; it has a ripple effect - Bay Village Coffee gets their beans from Rose’n’Crantz, their deli meat from Brent Park and various foodstuffs from Renco and Compass Foods.

“The landscape of business has changed. There’s not going to be a going back, there’s going to be a new normal. It’s really time to reinvent our businesses. We’re only at the very beginning of the change. It’s time to innovate, reimagine, and listen to our customers. That’s the challenge,” says Mack.

“We’re trying to figure out what the coffee shop of the future looks like,” adds Forbes.

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