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The Art of Reinvention: One Couple's Secret to Keeping Their Seasonal Business Thriving

Update: a year ago, we met Nick and Amanda Worsley, new proprietors of a brick and mortar store in a small community—their new home. This week, we caught up with them to check in on the evolution of their business. Read to the end to hear how they’re surviving—and thriving—one year later.

Summer, 2016:

Nick Worsley stealthily hunts flies, bringing down the swatter in quick, deft strikes, punctuating the conversation I’m having with his wife and business partner, Amanda. We’re sitting behind the counter at The General – the couple’s new store in the bustling wine county of Prince Edward. The door is propped open, inviting out-of-town visitors, locals, and the unwanted buzzing guests.

It’s a Monday afternoon in the heart of the region’s high season. Only a month earlier, Nick and Amanda opened the doors on The General’s first permanent location.

The shop, as the name suggests, sells all manner of general goods—from novelty flashlights and hammocks to cigarettes and dish soap—aiming to fill the little holes in the offering of the growing community.

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Though the store is not the first venture for the couple, it’s their first in the area, a place they’ve called home for a little less than a year. As such, the General’s nomenclature was pure practicality—the name allows them to tweak the business while they learn the ins and outs, striving to support the community's needs.

Photos by: Matthew Wiebe

A crash course in entrepreneurship

This isn’t the first time that the couple employed resilience as a means to survive in business. Nick comes from a family of entrepreneurs, his parents running a long standing video business in Toronto’s West End. He grew up in the business, later managing it. That’s where he met Amanda.

Unlike her future husband, her family tree was not replete with small business ownership.

"Both of my parents hated their jobs, and I remember being fixated on that at 11 or 12. I needed to figure out what I wanted to do and I had to love it. I had no idea what it was going to be, but I knew I definitely wasn't going to be an entrepreneur. I thought, ‘I don't have the guts for it, it's too scary.’ I was raised by people who had jobs with salaries.
It wasn't until I married into a family of entrepreneurs that I thought, ‘Why not?’ It was so out of my imagination, you know? It seems like you needed millions of dollars or investors. The idea of opening a modest, small business that grows with your community is wonderful.”

It wasn't until I married into a family of entrepreneurs that I thought, ‘Why not?’

Everywhere, video stores were shuttering their doors and after 20 years of business, Film Buff too struggled to stay alive in the changing times. “It was a little bit tough taking the reins in a dying industry,” Nick says, “I wondered, ‘Is it what I'm doing, is it my fault that the numbers are going down?’"

The family diversified, though, supplementing the dwindling sales with ice cream. Nick and Amanda eventually rebranded and expanded the food-focused part of the business, emphasizing coffee. Local Hero became its own entity within the video business’ retail space.

For Amanda, it was her first foray into entrepreneurship and she stepped away from her full time job to dive in. The couple soon discovered their personal compatibility extending to business.

"I love thinking big picture stuff—where we're going to be, trying new things, sourcing. But Nick, he’s is as pleasant to the first person he serves as the last person he serves. By the fourth person, I'm touchy. It can be great, but it can also get to me. We have emphasis in two different areas, so that helps."

Her words are still hanging in the humid air when Nick is suddenly in front of the counter, crouched low with a group of children, patiently explaining the mechanics of latte art. (Amanda, meanwhile, breaks from our conversation to quietly crunch numbers.)

Starting over: New town, new business

Just a year and a half into Local Hero, the space’s lease was up and the couple faced the big question: what’s next? “We did the birth and death of a business,” she tells me, “without really getting to experience the meat-and-potatoes middle part.”

They weighed starting over in the big city, but rents were high, even in the up-and-coming neighbourhoods. To compete and be profitable, they had already been working 16 hour days, 7 days a week. And now, they have a two-year-old son.

“We started working on our first business when Buck was 10 weeks old. Small business ownership and parenthood is really just part of us—I can't really tease them apart. They're both all-consuming, they're both so personal, so frustrating, so rewarding. So, it's funny that I literally can't have one without the other. He's grown up in the shops. He's here every day, grabbing things."

Small business ownership and parenthood is really just part of us—I can't really tease them apart. They're both all-consuming, they're both so personal, so frustrating, so rewarding.

Much like Nick’s own life, their son will be raised in the business, and entrepreneurship will be in his blood. But with a family came his parents’ desire for balance.

That’s when they began to consider the slow life. Amanda and Nick spent their very limited free time exploring rural communities outside of the city when they stumbled upon Prince Edward County. The area had been enjoying a burst of press attention in the past few years, recently gaining notoriety as a top wine tourism destination by Condé Nast Traveler.

The Worsleys identified it as an area with plenty of growth potential, and a place to start a new life.

“I reached out to the County planning department and read their vision and strategic planning documents for the next 20 to 50 years, just to try to get a sense of where they saw this community going. They really were committed to small business. The view was amazing, the people were amazing. But it was all the small, independent businesses that attracted us the most.”

The view was amazing, the people were amazing. But it was all the small, independent businesses that attracted us the most.

Along with Nick’s now-retired parents, the couple moved three hours outside of their comfort zone. They learned quickly that business in a rural area was very much a different beast.

“We decided last June or July that we were going to come, and then we spent the next six to eight months trying to find the space. It just didn't happen. It turns out, what we didn’t know as city people, was that it's just really hard to lock something down in the country because things aren't listed online. It's signs in windows, it's conversations with people. Luckily someone in February connected us with Alex at The House of Falconer, who was looking for a café—that’s how we got started with the pop-up."

Above: House of Falconer exterior, pop-up interior (photos by: Matthew Wiebe)

Though the initial intention was to start with a permanent retail space, Amanda says now that starting with a pop-up is a strategy she’d recommend to others in her place. The pop-up happened as a way to get into business quickly while they continued their search for more permanent digs.

“I encourage people, every time they ever ask: ‘Do a pop-up, lower your overhead, lower your risk.’ But for us, it was really scary to move all the way out here with just a pop-up. It was a terrifying prospect.”

I encourage people, every time they ask: ‘Do a pop-up, lower your overhead, lower your risk.’

Graduating to a permanent location

Eventually, the duo secured a space on the main strip in Wellington, just around the corner from the much-revered Drake Devonshire hotel. The business strip in the town is racing to catch up for the boutique hotel’s tourist draw, a fact that benefits a business like The General—a business with chameleon abilities.

"There was an assumption that we would be a high end place because we’re from the city, and that it would be very expensive for locals. There was this kind of hesitance. But once we said, ‘we're going to have cigarettes and candy, we're going to have cheap beach towels.’, it instantly disarmed people and they were super excited about it.

There's no convenience store in town anymore so there was an opportunity for us to fill a gap here. We brought in organic, local produce and specialty foods, because you can't get them anywhere. Also, the pharmacy closes at two on the weekends, so toothbrushes do really well because a lot of people forget that kind of thing. We've tried to compliment what was here already."

There's no convenience store in town anymore so there was an opportunity for us to fill a gap here.

The pop-up shop, located 20 minutes from their new permanent location, will pack up business alongside the mass exodus of suitcases at the end of the summer. As for the store, The General is ramping up to face its first winter. Business has been bumping since the location opened, but with a drop in temperature comes an inevitable drop in sales.

The problem isn’t unique to businesses in the area. Elsewhere, ice cream stands and snowboard suppliers and Christmas decor stores alike are affected by swift seasonal tides. How will The General stay afloat until spring thaw? Survival depends on stretch and careful planning.

How to combat the lulls of a seasonal business

1. Forecast: for newbies like the Worsleys, there’s no business history to help them plan financially for the low season. But they’re leaning on fellow businesses in the area for advice. If your business has at least a year under its belt, use it as a benchmark for hiring and scheduling staff, managing cash flow and inventory, and establishing sales goals for the high season.

“I didn’t know what the volume would be like out here, because there was no business like ours, so I had to create projections with no anchor, except tourist stats for the neighbourhood. We're shooting past our projections but with winter it's another giant question.”

We're shooting past our projections but again with winter it's another giant question.

2. Pare down: Nick and Amanda have hired staff for this busy period. Their choices have helped them plan ahead: both temporary employees will return to school in the fall, just as the pop-up closes and business slows.

3. Find other revenue streams: the shop’s coffee offerings promise some viability with locals in the winter, but The General’s owners plan to find other ways to draw people into the space. With a few tables shuffled, the store is large and flexible enough to accommodate small community events and workshops.

“These activities would work with families in the neighbourhood to bring people into the store, and create stuff to do for our son, too. We’re are here anyways so why not board game nights?”

4. Expand your sales channels: while managing the new brick and mortar store is already a ton of work, the slower cold months open up time to build the shop’s online presence, using an ecommerce store to sell to customers outside of the region

5. Use downtime wisely: reduce hours and use the dip in traffic to plan ahead for next season, get caught up on administrative and financial tasks, develop a content and marketing plan. Amanda is already getting ahead on sourcing.

6. Maintain contact: summer traffic may be predominantly the fair-weather types, but a great experience means they could be repeat customers next year. Collect customer emails in store and keep them engaged until cottage season rolls around again.

For now, the Worsleys have nothing to worry about. The General starts to fill with people, even though it’s a cloudy Monday. It’s mostly locals today, it seems, as everyone here knows Nick and Amanda by name.

The customers seem genuinely invested in the shop, suggesting ideas and products to sell. For the couple, the advice is welcome – support from the community is the paramount secret to survival.

“Everyone wants to tell you how to run your business. But in small towns, you listen. These are the people I serve everyday and their advice is weighted.”

Where are they now?

Fall, 2017: It's been more than a year since Nick and Amanda opened their doors in the tourist mecca of Prince Edward County. They were new to the community and still feeling out the business. Since then, their family jumped from three to five with the addition of twins, they launched their ecommerce store, and have stayed busy as ever.

The couple found ways to keep business booming through the off-season by focusing on the needs of the locals, Amanda says. And the key was listening:

"We're always trying to evolve based on the new landscape and the responses from our customers. When we started we were really casting a huge net. Our plan was always to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what stuck. Now, over a year later, it's clear what our community and visitors want from us in particular—products that are locally made and products that are interesting, fun, and affordable." 

Our plan was always to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what stuck. Now, it's clear what our community and visitors want from us in particular.

With many other shops popping up in the area, The General has kept an eye on their neighbouring businesses to ensure that their offering is unique:

"We've moved away from some of the higher end goods we started with as other shops in the area are already doing a great job at supplying those. Instead we focus on fun, retro candies and products that parents want to share with their kids or things that just stop us in our tracks."

The coffee and sandwich counter, which was added as an "extra" proved to be busier than expected, and the couple has pivoted to put more emphasis on that part of the business. 

Their online store is up and running now, too, expanding their sales channels and their reach beyond the County.

The store continues to thrive as an inclusive space for both tourists and locals (they're even sponsoring a local hockey team), but with one exception: the wildlife. "We've have a screen door now," says Amanda, smiling. Nick's fly-hunting days are over, letting him focus on what he does best—slinging a mean cup of coffee and making his customers feel welcome.