By Cody Hawes, Owner & Operator of The Milk Maid Fine Cheese and Gourmet Food Owen Sound, ON

We live in the era of online shopping and the dissolution of malls, and yet my small downtown business is thriving. When I share that I own a specialty cheese shop downtown Owen Sound, people don’t hide their surprise with questions like “ how are you surviving?” and “is there really a market for that?” and that was a regular occurrence even before the pandemic. With competitive price points at big box stores and Amazon, people are so used to seeing Ma and Pop shops boarded up in rural Downtown communities. It is my firm position that this is not an inevitable truth of small town life, and we all have the power to ensure that. Even on a budget.

One of the most important lessons I have learned since my partner and I became clients of Linda Amour Grant for my home finances is the importance of budgeting every dollar of my personal spending. Through the process of learning how to budget well, I had to make a very important shift in my mindset: quality over quantity. I prioritize spending my money in small businesses over big box stores and Amazon. If we want nice things in our community, we need to invest in them. Sure I can buy more on amazon, but I don’t actually need more. I want to feel good about what I spend my money on, and feel good knowing that my money is going back into my community.

I know how difficult it can be to choose to spend a little more money in order to support local and small businesses over online sales. I know first-hand, after the initial shock of Linda’s suggested budget for our personal savings, having to shift our focus to figure out how to continue supporting our favourite local shops while staying within the budget we set with Linda. I believe that shifting the focus to quality purchases from small businesses over cheaper big box store purchases contributes to quality of life. Think of it like choosing to buy artisanal triple crème brie over No Name marble cheese. You can head to a corporate grocery store and purchase 500 g of rubbery marble cheese. You will eat that block of cheese with minimal enjoyment, and no connection to how it was made, where it came from, or the chain of impact of how it got from an anonymous farm to your fridge. Choosing to spend money on a piece of triple crème brie from a local business like mine allows you to access specific information about the specific region of France the cheese was produced, who the cheese maker is, even what animals were involved in productions. If you are into it, I can sometimes even tell you what those animals were eating. Choosing to spend locally, you develop a relationship with me, and my staff, and you develop a deeper relationship with the food you’re eating.

Instead of choosing the instantaneous buzz you get from next day delivery, choose the low hum of keeping the lights on and doors open for small businesses. Choose the warm embrace of supporting your neighbour and investing in your community, the sound of chatter and laughter in the street. If we all choose to shift our mindset away from cheap and fast, to local abundance in quality and social connection, we can avoid a barren and boarded up downtown.

Some key features of my shop that ensure its survival are the personal connection, online presence, and quality product. I welcome my regulars by name – which is certainly a test now with masks – and I remember their cheese preferences. I use social media daily to market my specialty imported and locally made products to engage with my following about how much I appreciate their business, and engage with them about my products. This includes regular dinner inspiration with recipes and meal ideas.

As a small business owner, I am balancing the charm of having a quaint and unique shop around the corner with needing to adapt to an evolving online market. Up until COVID-19, I didn’t have much online presence beyond social media. In the first weeks of lockdown, I knew I needed to launch an online store to sell my products. Despite how counter intuitive it seems to sell cheese online, I was able to maintain 60-70% of my sales during the time that non-essential businesses were closed for April and May. My loyal customers made it their priority to spend their money locally to make sure that my business didn’t go under. After reopening in June, I decided to maintain my online store for convenience of ordering ahead and picking up in store.  I offer gift baskets, cheese and charcuterie platters, a small selection of cut cheese, and other items that I sell in store. Already I have orders placed for custom gift baskets to be picked up on Christmas week from family members living at a distance, unable to travel due to the pandemic.

What I have learned this year between watching my small business thrive, and learning how to budget my personal finances while supporting my favourite local businesses, is that you can be on a budget and shop local if you shift your mindset. My shop offers the convenience of ordering from home, the warm feeling of supporting a local shop, and assurance that you will receive quality products. I encourage my community to shift their mindset this holiday to what really matters, finding ways to spend their money in responsible impactful ways that serve their community.