2023 14-2 April Business

The return of Benny’s: Surviving the pandemic

By Norman Moyer

Much to the delight of long-time customers, Benny’s Bistro, behind the French Baker near the corner of Murray and Dalhousie, has re-opened. Nearly the same menu is on offer and old customers and new are coming back for their favourites. I interviewed Scott Adams, the owner, manager and chef of Benny’s and the French Baker, about the path through the pandemic. Like all successful small-business stories, it is a story of tenacity, prudence and a strong set of satisfied clients.

Benny’s, like all of us, was caught by surprise by the power and the duration of the pandemic. It lost 80% of revenues and saw staff fall from 23 to 3 at the worst of the storm. For almost three years Benny’s survived on just the bakery side of the business and a small take-out offering. In the midst of the closings and shutdowns Scott made several investments to get ready for life after COVID. He credits Benny’s survival and success to several factors: financial prudence, help from federal subsidies, flexibility, a supportive client base and good staff.

Scott describes himself as a careful financial manager. He knows that damaging surprises are the rule of the game in a small service business. It could be a fire, a break-in, a major equipment failure or a pandemic. So Benny’s started the pandemic with some money in the bank. This meant that they could cover the rent and even undertake some long-needed renovations to the retail end of the bakery. During the initial lockdown period, he found a contractor and completely re-did the retail shop. This was one of the pluses of the pandemic. It’s always hard to close down for renovations. It means laying off staff and disappointing customers. With the forced closing and layoffs this was the perfect time to renovate.

The federal business subsidies added to Benny’s breathing space. It gave Scott time to figure out how to pivot to a new business model based on a take-out menu. The help provided by the government to the staff that he laid off also meant that some of them were still available when he could finally begin to expand again.

Inside Benny’s Photos Dave Chapin

Part of Scott’s success was his own flexibility and that of his partner in life and business, Max. They had to do all the jobs, from planning and finance to cooking, serving and cleaning. Happily, Scott’s business partner in the bakery kitchen, Gerald Chazal, was able to keep up production through the whole period. It felt like a marathon many days but without that ability to do it all without staff, the business would not have survived.

When the time came to grow the business, again Scott found, like many small businesses in the service sector, that a lot of his former staff had moved on. He was delighted that nine of his previous staff came back but recruiting the rest–they are now at 23–was one of things that slowed down the re-opening.

The survival of Benny’s is also due to faithful customers. They shopped from the sidewalk during the door-service phase; they bought the take-out lunches; they came back to the bakery; and they never stopped asking when Benny’s would re-open. Scott even noted that from time to time he was able to get reassurance that the pandemic would someday pass from Ottawa’s chief public health officer, who is a neighbour and customer.

Congratulations Scott and Max. Good to see you 100% back.

Like all successful small-business stories, it is a story of tenacity, prudence and a strong set of satisfied clients.