Sarnia Coun. Bill Dennis was in a restaurant with his wife when he got a notification on his cell phone that Sarnia is again going into lockdown for the third time. When they shared the news with their server, it was simply too much.
“The waitress literally started to cry,” said Dennis, one of the nine councillors of the small city of Sarnia, Ont.
Local businesses — particularly restaurants that can’t host in-person dining — are struggling to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. One Facebook group in Sarnia is trying to help. Its goals are to keep local businesses afloat and bring the community together during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown.
“It has been a Godsend,” Dennis said.
“I don’t want to exaggerate, but it literally kept businesses in the business. It’s kept people employed, and it’s a phenomenal thing to this community.”
The idea of forming a Facebook group
Musician Rodney James Medwid and his wife, Kendra Petley, founded Supporting Sarnia and Surrounding Businesses, SSSB, last year. Medwid, who also owns a kitchen business, said it all started after a discussion with a friend, a local restaurant owner, who expressed his concerns about losing business due to lockdowns.
The group now has more than 17,000 members. It provides the community with a safe space to share their businesses, concerns and come for help or emotional support for each other.
Watch: How a Facebook group is bringing Sarnia together
“I really felt bad for business people when this pandemic hit. Especially people in the beauty industry, (and) in the restaurant industry. It was just a dead stop for them,” said Medwid, who lives in Brights Grove, one of Sarnia’s neighbourhoods. “So I decided to create a group that was more catered towards them at first.”
Through SSSB, members share menus and videos of different restaurants and post reviews. The group also helped organize gift cards that community members could purchase before the second lockdown to help keep the restaurants afloat.
Medwid said things changed after the group’s humble start. The “title of the group has changed three times because it has kind of morphed into bigger things,” he said.
The group began as “Supporting Beauty/Food and Beverage during Covid 19 Sarnia” was focused only on the local food and beauty industry. With new members joining in and discussing the issues, the group expanded to include all the local businesses as they all were hit hard by the pandemic and were in need of community support.
“It’s not that long we started the group, and I am really proud of the number of members who have joined already and the positive response this group has received,” said Medwid, who is originally from Calgary.
“We try to enforce kindness.”
Dennis, the city councillor, said the group has helped bring the close-knit community even closer. The pandemic is taking a toll on people’s finances and people’s mental health, he said.
He said that the city is also trying to help businesses as much it can, saying Sarnia is loosening the red tape and wants to be known as a “business-friendly city.”
The provincial government recently announced that Sarnia-Lambton municipalities would get nearly $3.9 million in financial relief to help handle the pandemic-related municipal deficits. With the third lockdown announced, and now with province wide stay-at-home order.
Helping local businesses
Jake Cherski, the owner of Philly Cheese Jake, said the group has not only helped him to promote his American-style restaurant but also he has received appreciation for the community service he provides to his customers.
Cherski said he doesn’t publicize his work because his only intention is to help the community.
“This group helped me personally business-wise basically by allowing people to share their experiences at Philly Cheese Jake,” he said. “It helps other people know and understand where we are in the community and where kids also can enjoy the same experience of dining as they do.”
Continued support for community issues
Medwid said he started the group because he wants to make a positive contribution to the community. He said he could see himself running for office sometime soon.
“I want to maintain a stronger voice for the community and at some point, I want to be that voice,” he said. “My fun part is just taking care of the community the more and more I can do that the better for me.”
In the meantime, he and his wife’s efforts are not going unnoticed.
“Rodney and Kendra are the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever met in my life,” Dennis said. “It’s such a positive site.”