GuelphToday caught up with some area companies that pivoted early in the pandemic to see how they were doing.
After the word of the coronavirus began to spread in late 2019, Precision Biomonitoring, an environmental testing company in Guelph shifted its focus to develop COVID-19 tests in February of 2020.
“We were really determined to develop the first COVID-19 test. And were the first COVID-19 test,” said company co-founder Mario Thomas.
Working 16 hour days, 7 days a week, the team was fixed on making a 60-minute test.
“We were five people in Guelph doing environmental monitoring,” said Thomas about the team that quickly grew to 45 people.
Precision Biomonitoring reached its goal and received Health Canada’s approval to use the test in June 2020. Since then, it has been providing 60-minute COVID-19 tests to all kinds of sectors across Canada that include borders, emergency rooms, long-term care homes, assessment centres, fisheries, offices, mining companies and movie studios.
In November 2020 it received Health Canada approval for its TRIPLELOCK Test Strips, a rapid COVID-19 test that uses the same technology as the individual COVID-19 test but processes nine tests simultaneously and yields results in 60 minutes. The test received approval in Europe in October.
“We have products in Canada, products in Europe, we have moved last year to a brand new state-of-the-art lab here in Guelph,” said Thomas.
In February 2021, it received Health Canada approval for the TRIPLELOCK SARS-CoV-2 test in 96-Well Plate format, a device with 96 pre-loaded tests to allow larger and faster testing volumes in labs.
Precision Biomonitoring is currently developing a new product, a 15-minute digital antigen rapid saliva test that is portable, disposable, affordable and offers results almost instantly. It will also be used for illnesses beyond COVID-19 such as influenza. Thomas said his team also received a grant from innovative solutions Canada to adopt the platform for bacterial pathogens in food such as salmonella and E-coli.
“It’s been very rewarding seeing that every day our test is used and is useful,” said Thomas. “We are in this for the long term now.”
Mrs GroceryTodd Machin from Elora began Mrs. Grocery in the summer of 2019. At the time it was a one-man local grocery delivery business from Elora delivering four to five orders a day in Wellington County and Kitchener-Waterloo.
When COVID-19 hit, the business skyrocketed with hundreds of orders, Todd hired his wife Dana Machin and several drivers to help complete grocery delivery orders from local vendors to residents across the county.
It began with 30 local vendors. Now Mrs. Grocery is selling products from 45 local vendors that include a wide range of products from farm-fresh produce to poultry to baked goods to gift baskets, jewelry and pet supplies.
In the past year, the duo said it must have delivered nearly 4,000 grocery orders.
In June 2020, the orders slowed down and the couple said it adjusted its operations. “Now it’s at a consistent pace,” said Dana adding that the duo has been attracting new customers while maintaining and keeping solid relationships with their old ones.
Dana said the duo has become really close friends with a lot of their customers. “We know a lot of customers’ stories now. We know a lot of customers that are elderly that don’t have vehicles or don’t have family around to support them. We are like a lifeline for them,” she said.
Todd said being able to offer local businesses support is what keeps the duo going. “Our local businesses and vendors have had a really tough go at it over this pandemic,” he said.
Dixon’s Distilled Spirits
When the pandemic hit, Guelph-based Dixon’s Distilled Spirits temporarily shut down its regular production of craft distillery to make free hand sanitizer for local health care workers as the item quickly went out of stock.
The business used its existing stock of ethanol alcohol to make 120ml bottles of hand sanitizer at first and then received a recipe from a local doctor that used ethanol, glycerol and hydrogen peroxide.
Vicky Dixon, co-owner of the distillery said the company produced nearly 20,000 litres of hand sanitizer the first few months with the help of volunteers.
These days they are producing between 2,000 to 5,000 litres of hand sanitizer per month depending on orders.
Dixon said the products were distributed to long-term care homes, hospitals, clinics, midwives, paramedics, firefighters, police, Hospice Wellington and various charities.
“The past year has been abundant in both successes and challenges,” said Dixon. “I’m not sure you can have one without the other. It has been an amazing roller coaster of all kinds of exciting things.”
Dixon’s Distilled Spirits are still making hand sanitizer approved by Health Canada. It also expanded its product line by making wipes and sprays which are Health Canada approved for hospitals, schools, industrial and personal use.
But they didn’t forget their distillery side. Their Wicked Blueberry Gin was very successful in LCBO and won a Double Gold Award in the tasting category at the SIP Awards. The distillery is also continuing to do contract work for other distilleries.
“We have been working on the rebranding and formulas for the new line of disinfectant wipes and sprays, so they will be out soon. We have developed a sister company for these products,” said Dixon.
In line with their motto “do the right thing,” Danby quickly stepped up to save lives — in a way it knew how— when the pandemic hit.
With lots of video conferencing, extreme social distancing, isolated work shifts and an abundance of Plexiglass, Danby diverted nearly 100 staff members for five months starting April 2020 to focus on just making ventilators. They also managed to keep COVID out of the warehouse.
By December 2020, the company completed and delivered the federal government’s order of 10,000 ventilators in partnership with Baylis Medical, a medical production and distribution company.
When the vaccine became available this year, they brought back an older technology of non-frost-free freezers which are able to maintain a steady temperature in order to safely store RNA vaccines. The freezers are the same as the company’s home freezer, but with temperature logging.
Danby makes approximately half a million freezers annually. Production of its -20 C non-frost-free freezers which stores Pfizer vaccines is ongoing.
“Partly the reason I did it was so I could have resources so I didn’t have to lay anybody off,” said Estill. “One of the things I pride myself on is being fast and entrepreneurial.”
Estill said if Danby can fill another need to help during the pandemic, it will absolutely step up.
“It was tumultuous and a year of change,” said Jim Estill, CEO of Danby Products. Of course, you feel good doing your part for sure.
One business owner has pivoted again by closing down a business started during the pandemic to focus on a long-time side hustle.
Katrina Bell is the owner of the former business Artisanly, a gift box service featuring handmade products from local businesses. Last fall, Bell shut down Artisanly to focus on her candle-making business, The Copper Bell.
“I decided it made more sense to shift my focus to the one more people were responding to,” she said about what happened.
The Copper Bell began in September 2019 as a creative outlet while Bell was working for a software company. When she lost her job at the beginning of COVID, Bell said she started Artisanly.
“I knew a lot of makers through that (the Copper Bell), and I thought I would try a monthly gift box, and it changed throughout the year,” said Bell.
However, interest grew in Copper Bell candles as Bell grew her business network for Artisanly.
“It was so hectic, I didn’t have the brain space to work on both,” said Bell, mentioning selling more candles than boxes, “So I had to pick one thing and I picked my own thing.”
Despite choosing the Copper Bell, Bell is still collaborating with other businesses, including featuring other maker’s products in a Mother’s Day box.
“The Copper Bell was always a fun side job, when I had to make it something else, and I had the ability to do that, it’s grown and it’s been amazing.”The Guelph Box
While one gift box service is no longer operating, another is seeing steady sales after their launch during the first phase of the pandemic.
Guelph Box co-founder, Genevieve Sutherns, said she didn’t anticipate residents continuing to support their service and the other small businesses whose products they feature.
“I think it’s gone from a fad of supporting local businesses to a lifestyle choice that people are making,” she said.
Over the past year, the Guelph Box has seen sales increase from another customer base, corporations.
“It’s a great way to do a high amount of orders for businesses in a short amount of time.”
Sutherns and Guelph Box co-founder, Josh Gray, also went back to school in the fall. While away, both managed the business remotely, with the day-of operations handled by Sweet Temptations Bakery.
“They really stepped up at that time to allow for Guelph Box to continue.” she said, “They are absolutely incredible.”
“Now we are both back in Guelph and have taken on the packing ourselves.”
Currently, the Guelph Box offers biweekly deliveries for corporate clients and monthly deliveries to the public and planning a special box for Father’s Day.
“Our number one has always been the vendors and it continues to be.”Well Baked Box
Since opening last year, the owners of Well Baked Box said they are balancing their business along with full-time jobs as a health researcher and naturopath.
“We definitely didn’t know where it would go when we first created it,” said co-founder Courtney Russell about how being temporarily laid off gave them time to create their business, “We just wanted to have fun doing the thing we love, which is healthy baking.”
Well Baked Box has grown in Guelph, Wellington County, Kitchener and Cambridge with plans to slowly expand into the Halton Region.
In response, a co-op student from the University of Guelph Food Science department was hired to help with their operations.
“She’ll be a full-time co-op summer student which we’re super excited about,” said Russell, “She will be helping us a lot.”
Besides growing their staff, Russell mentions the business also began offering reusable takeout options in January following customer requests for zero waste options.
“Now, more than 20 per cent of our customers are in the reusable program,” she said.
This summer, Well Baked Box has applied to be a vendor in the Guelph Farmers Market as a way to interact more with customers. It will also make monthly appearances at the Elora and Rockwood.
“We want to connect with more of our customers and clients, and to answer questions and get to know people more,” said Russell about the next steps for the business.
Silver Fox Distillery
Despite a slow start to its first year in business, Arthur's Silver Fox Distillery has been quick to find new opportunities to grow.
“We’re pretty flexible in what we do,” said owner Mark Townsend, “With the quiet time, it’s allowed us to come up with new things ... we’re getting back into shape.”
When the distillery opened back in February, it immediately jumped into making hand sanitizer during the first wave of the pandemic, donating a lot of it. Now, they continue to make it based on customer requests.
“They prefer what we make as to other brands,” he said about the product, “It keeps our hands a lot smoother.”
Last year allowed the distillery to offer new products and create new flavours. As a result, the distillery won several awards.
“It’s something we’re quite proud of,” said Townsend.
While they wait for in-person visits to resume again, the distillery has launched an online store and is working on an application to get into the LCBO.
“That’s a big source of revenue for us down the road,” said Townsend, hoping to see bottles in stores in October or spring 2022.
Townsend said the setbacks haven't put the distillery in dire straits, and appreciates the support of Arthur residents who continue to purchase moonshine and gin.
“They have been a blessing and the facility has been a blessing that we’ve chosen.”