Niagara-on-the-Lake’s gym and hospitality proprietors are elated to be back in business since the province began to ease restrictions on Jan. 31.
With their first weekend behind them, the doors were finally thrown open at Silversmith Brewing, The Exchange Brewery and Ironwood Cider House, where customers were eager to enjoy a chance to socialize while enjoying their drinks.
Lauren Leprich, a supervisor at Silversmith, said the first few days were a bit quiet, and the Thursday snowstorm put a damper on the reopening, but things picked up for the weekend.
“We’re really appreciative that people have begun to come back out again,” Leprich says. “They’re so happy to be back, super appreciative to be out again after so many lockdowns. It’s been really nice to see people, to talk to people again. We did take-out (during the lockdown), but it’s not the same as having people here.”
Leprich credits Silversmith’s “really great team” for contributing to the restart. They’re planning to begin presenting live music again on Thursdays, which she hopes will help get people out of the house and into their Niagara Stone Road location.
Kathryn Dodington, events coordinator at The Exchange Brewery, says though this time of year is typically quiet, she is already beginning to see a return of tour groups and hotel guest visitors, boding well for a very promising February long weekend.
“Pandemic fatigue is definitely showing now more than ever,” Dodington writes in an email to The Local. “Our guests have shared their pleasure with being able to get out and connect socially in a safe environment. Most of them are eager to chat and connect; the craft beer industry is a very social space. Nothing compares to the connection we have with customers at the brewery being able to responsibly enjoy locally made craft beer in a safe and social setting.”
The Exchange has kept the social aspect going during lockdowns with events such as virtual trivia nights, but plans are in the works to safely host in-person versions beginning this week. As well, Humour & Hops Comedy Night host David Green is recording an album at the brewery on March 18, with a double featuring eight comedians. Plans are also afoot for the return of their popular Sourpalooza Beer Festival as an in-person event on Saturday, March 26.
The Exchange was also able to maintain some presence during lockdowns via an online sales model focused primarily on free local shipping within 25 kilometres of the brewery and delivery in southern Ontario. But sales were nowhere near the level they were in pre-pandemic times, leading to some staff layoffs. The current reopening allows them to bring some of those staff members back.
Ironwood Cider House also capitalized on online sales, but owner Richard Liu is excited about the opportunity to finally be able to show off the huge changes at the former Sunnybrook Estate Winery. The Local last checked in with Liu just under a year ago in the middle of a major expansion of both the production and hosting elements of the Lakeshore Road site.
Liu says after a long process, Ironwood finally received its occupancy clearance in mid-November, not long before the province put an end to hospitality on site.
Sales last weekend were slow, most likely due to the weather, he says. And though there are signs that tourists are returning to NOTL, he worries a bit about the lack of American visitors crossing the border. Those who did visit Ironwood, though, were clearly happy to be out socializing once again.
“Our business is about selling positive experiences to people,” Liu says. “That’s why we have our gallery, with about 12 pieces all from local artists. We want to create an experience for people.”
Rising materials costs for both the construction and their production facility did complicate matters during the pandemic. And with slower sales, that meant product was sitting on shelves longer than originally anticipated. That’s okay for the Sunnybrook-branded wines, but ciders have a shorter shelf life, leading to some challenges with logistics.
In an effort to meet those challenges, Liu, ever the innovator, is turning his focus to developing some unique, innovative new ways of using a distilling process that will have a positive impact on their product line.
With construction now behind them, Liu sees the reopening as an opportunity for Ironwood to maximize the new facility. He’s also made some organizational changes that he says will help them handle growth as they find their way to full operation.
“2022 is a make it or break it year for us,” Liu says. “And we’re hoping to start planning for a grand opening event sometime in the fall that will involve the community.”
Across the parking lot from Silversmith, Jack Addams Williams of local gym F-45 says people are flooding back to his facility to resume their 45-minute functional workouts.
“We paused everyone’s memberships for every one of these lockdowns,” Williams says. “We know a small number of people won’t come back, but most are itching to get back into movement, seeing people again. It’s partly the social element, on top of getting fit, moving and feeling better. Our retention has been absolutely brilliant.”
A Monday night visit to F-45 found a socially distanced group of 16 people (50 per cent capacity) of various ages on rowing machines, stationary bicycles, battle ropes, kettlebells, free weights and floor mats. The 45-minute sessions are spaced out to give Williams and his staff time to sanitize all equipment.
“People feel extremely safe here,” Williams says. “Our people know that COVID doesn’t exist on surfaces. Gyms and restaurants have been ostracized when there’s no data to support closing us down. We’ve never had anyone contract COVID in our facility, and we’ve only had three people contact us to say that they had COVID.“
Williams is hoping we’ve seen the last of the lockdowns.
“This last one was really tough,” laments Williams. “We do have an online option that we can run with live Zoom classes, but if we have another lockdown it will be incredibly difficult for us to survive.”
Tuesday afternoon a few regulars could be spotted upstairs in the fitness area of the NOTL Community Centre.
Town supervisor of recreation Dan Maksenuk says after four closings and reopenings, they have the routine down to an art.
“Currently everybody attending the gym has to show proof of vaccination, along with a piece of ID,” Maksenuk explains. “No advance registrations are required. Our building has a capacity of 300 people with no specific limit for the gym, but we are definitely keeping an eye on it. I think the maximum we’ve seen is about 15 at any given time.”
They’ve been freezing memberships during the lockdowns and extending end dates accordingly, or offering refunds for those who don’t wish to return.
“We still have a lot of members who haven’t returned at all,” he says. “I think the pandemic has changed some people’s minds about working out at a gym. Some have probably purchased equipment to do their workouts at home, or are taking part in the outdoors. But on the flip side, we’re seeing a whole bunch of new faces.”
Gym hours at the Community Centre are slightly reduced, with opening hours from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, and 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends.