Going Against the Grain – Staffing up during COVID

Few small businesses moved through the pandemic without experiencing monumental change. For one company, the “pandemic pivot” didn’t mean retreating but instead providing full-time jobs with benefits.

Two years ago (almost to the day), when panic and uncertainty prevailed, businesses of all sizes across the country were forced to make some difficult decisions. Finances were tighter than ever, in-store traffic was low, and virtual solutions had not yet become the norm. In fact, according to studies conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the country lost nearly 58,000 active businesses in 2020 alone.

However, that wasn’t the case for everyone.

Fraberts Fresh Food, a well-loved independent grocer in Fergus, Ontario is a family-owned business with a strong commitment to selling locally produced food from area farms and small food businesses whenever possible.

Co-owner Jackie Fraser has a farming background, while her husband and co-owner Derek Roberts is a chef responsible for in-house prepared meals. “We always say that I can tell you how the food got here, and Derek makes great meals that show what to do with it once you get it home!” says Jackie. The bar is sky high, with customers extoling their excellent customer service, knowledge, selection, and the exceptional quality of their home-made meals. 

When the pandemic hit, it was as though Fraberts had unknowingly prepared: they had ready-made foods available when restaurants weren’t open, they had a home delivery program already in place, and they had established a loyal customer base who felt safe enough to shop there when it was permitted.

Fraberts had already begun the process of moving away from part-time staff due to turnover and complicated scheduling. They recruited a full-time manager who was to start on March 18, 2020 – as it turned out, the first week of lockdown one – and had plans to hire another full-time employee as well. The pandemic didn’t derail their plans. They made a commitment to their new employees, which included – for the first time – introducing extended health benefits to the company, which is not typical of small grocers.

“We had never had benefits – even for Derek or me,” says Jackie, “but as we get older, benefits are more important, and we realized that in order to be competitive, we needed to have a good health benefits plan. Our new full-time staff have families, and we want to make sure they have access to the best benefits available.”

Jackie and Derek quoted with many insurance brokers, and quickly agreed that Bensol stood out to them. The Chambers Plan proved to be the most competitive, says Jackie, and moreso, “Bensol has great customer service and are really committed to working with us. The benefits plan is affordable and easy to understand, and the mobile app is amazing.”

The shift to full time staff evidently led to a more stable and reliable staff team during COVID and beyond, and they have not regretted the decision to change their staff model and add benefits at a time when people need them now more than ever. As word about Fraberts continues to spread and their business grows, she says they are confident having a strong benefits plan will set them up for continued success in a highly competitive employment environment.

Photo by Jackie Fraser