Women Supporting Women | Sarah Huggins of Mary Be Kitchen

Marissa Bronfman

What’s the status of your business? Did you have to pivot, go online, temporarily close? 

We closed our dining room on Tuesday March 17 and have been operating on a take-out/pick-up/delivery basis ever since. But the sales don't even come close to what we need to pay our staff, our rent and other fixed costs. Not even close. I've had to lay people off temporarily, which was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I feel like I have let them down, even though this whole situation is obviously not my fault. When you own a small business, your staff are like family and they rely on you to pay their rent and put food on their table and that's not something I take lightly at all. To have to say to them "sorry I don't have the money to keep paying you" -- it's absolutely devastating. 

We have maintained our menu as it was, for the most part and I actually launched our Spring 2020 menu last week, which seemed like a crazy thing to do but I really wanted to to bring back some of our guests' favourite, most requested items and try to bring a dash of normalcy to this terrible time. We have enhanced our menu with some house-made grocery items, such as litres of soups and stews, coffee beans, bake-and-serve cookies, oat milk, etc., and this week I launched "The Be Box," which is a curated selection of our fave items, delivered: a family-sized tray of mac and cheese, a big salad with our house vinaigrette, cookies, homemade pancake mix and so on.

We are also asking our customers and friends to buy meals for frontline workers, and thanks to one generous donation I've already been able to take a bunch of healthy meals to the workers at a downtown women's shelter, who are working long hours under scary and health-compromising conditions. 

What’s been the hardest part of this pandemic for you? 

The hardest part was losing my entire livelihood and my staff's livelihood, overnight, without any warning and having almost zero certainty about when things will return to normal. It's still pretty head-scratching to me that no one really predicted how bad this could get! 

But at the same time as I lost my livelihood, I lost all of the supports that made it possible for me to be an ambitious female entrepreneur in the first place. I think that's true for many professional and entrepreneurial women. I have three small children and I could never have started Mary Be without relying on childcare, full time school, grocery delivery -- the list goes on. And now I don't have any of those things, so I'm basically flailing (and failing) on all fronts. Don't get me wrong, I am grateful for all that I have - which is more than many do - but I think there has to be a conversation about how this is going to disproportionately impact women-run businesses, as women take the brunt of so many of the domestic duties, homeschooling, etc.

What can we as a community do for you? 

Buy food. That's it. I'm not looking for charity or free handouts from my community (the government, maybe, but not my guests or community!) The more food we sell, the more I can employ my amazing staff, support my suppliers (who also lost their livelihood overnight!) and have a hope of making it through this mess.

What advice would you give women? 

Speak up. Even though I'm a lawyer, I've always shied away from the public spotlight and hesitated to share my political views or become politically active in any way. I think a lot of women are the same: we want everyone to like us and we don't want to argue with anyone! But through this I am starting to find my voice and advocate for what I believe in. Email your political representatives, share compelling articles on social media, respond to the mayor's Instagram posts with rants about commercial property taxes (I did that and I'm proud of it!) It's ok to be angry and vocal. The more you talk, the more likely it is you will be heard.

What is your greatest hope right now? 

One thing I need everyone to know: if you want your favourite small businesses - coffee shops, gyms, bookshops, restaurants, etc. - to be around when we get out of all this, you *must* support them and help them get through this time. This isn't an option or a touchy-feely 'support local' kind of thing. Many of these businesses are truly and honestly on the verge of bankruptcy. If you can afford to buy coffee beans or order takeout dinners or buy an online personal training session, please, for the love of the city and all that is great about it, DO IT. Otherwise, when we all emerge from quarantine, Toronto will be a mere shadow of its former self. 

What are the 3 things keeping you sane? 

1. A daily super-sweat on my Peloton bike. 

2. My husband. He's my business partner and an unshakeable rock. 

3. Humour: I try not to take things too seriously, and to see the light and levity in this whole situation. I've been using my personal Instagram @kiwiandbean to share some of the highlights of life right now: bad parenting, piles of unfolded laundry, my husband mopping at 10 p.m. on Saturday night. 



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