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Challenges of doing business in Iqaluit

Starting and maintaining any business in the North comes with its fair share of challenges. Nunavut News reached out to two fairly new ventures, Hunter’s Market and Black Heart Cafe, to find out about the trials and joys of doing business in Iqaluit.

Hunters Market

Hunter’s Market is a family run business that opened in July 2019. For the past few months, this small convenience store and takeout restaurant has been servicing its customers with a smile.

Through word of mouth and social media, the business has won the hearts of many customers. It serves breakfast, homemade burgers, Greek food, sandwiches and pizza. Despite its popularity however, this new establishment has encountered some challenges.

Hussein Mahmoud, co-owner of Hunter’s Market, stands with employee Heather Doig at his shop. Rajnesh Sharma/NNSL photo

Hussein Mahmoud, the co-owner of Hunter’s Market, said that sometimes there are food issues with deliveries.

"I've had a couple of those where we had some late orders or things have gone bad or milk has exploded.”

Hunter’s Market relies on cargo deliveries shipped by air for both their convenience store products and ingredients needed for their menu items.

Finding employees with skills in customer service and sales or cooking abilities is yet another challenge.

“People hand in resumes and it’s just very hard to find very experienced people for this type of business, and also consistency is a really big thing,” said Mahmoud.

Despite the challenge, Hunter’s Market has been “pretty fortunate” to have landed a few consistent employees, he said.

Another major issue is housing.

"It is hard to find people because a lot of people come up here and sometimes they don’t want to stay or they also need staff housing which we can’t give yet,” said Mahmoud.

Iqaluit, like the rest of Nunavut, continues to experience a major housing crisis.

Many of the businesses in Iqaluit provide housing for their employees. Hunter Market has plans to build a staff housing unit but it will take some time.

"It’s good for business, if you have housing for sure, it’s easier to find employees that way,” said Mahmoud.

Black Heart Cafe

After a six month battle with the city, the Black Heart Cafe successfully met the municipal government's concerns about water usage.

“We had to get some engineers involved, draw water conservation plans, produce a culture to show that we’re going to be wise about water savings and our water usage,” said Joseph Szakacs, the owner of the Black Heart Cafe.

The coffee shop opened on April 3, 2018. In addition to providing catering services, it serves coffee, baked goods, sandwiches and soups.

Joseph Szakacs, a former chef at the Frobisher Inn, is now the owner of the Black Heart Cafe. Rajnesh Sharma/NNSL photo

Nunavut News wanted to know the specific challenges Szakacs has encountered over the past year.

Staffing is the “biggest” concern for almost everyone in the city, according to Szakacs.

Finding high skilled labour is another challenge.

“The main barista position is a skill job, you don’t just walk up to a manual espresso machine and know how to use it," he said. "It takes an amount of experience, practice and knowledge of coffee."

It is also difficult to find unskilled labour due to intense competition. Other businesses are also seeking such employees. The challenge of providing a high wage for unskilled labour is yet another issue.

“A small business like us, we can’t pay $30 an hour for an unskilled worker,” said Szakacs. “We try to maintain a competitive wage considering we do provide accommodations for our staff, some of them anyway.”

The logistics of providing housing for staff has been another ordeal for Szakacs. For example, due to safety reasons it is difficult to house a 20-year-old male in the same house as a mother with two children, he said.

To encourage his unskilled labour to work long-term, Szakacs makes an effort to provide a “nourishing” work environment.

“We work really hard to provide a team dynamic that’s supportive, inclusive, and that allows people to learn new skills," he said.

The Black Heart Cafe, like Hunter’s Market, also depends on cargo deliveries by air for their food products. Flight delays due to weather or mechanic issues and sometimes the lack of space on airlines to carry cargo means he sometimes doesn't get the required products.

It is not a "major" issue but it is still a concern for the business owner. He said they mitigate such problems by shopping at local stores, but at a cost.

“Now you’re paying retail for products that you could get for wholesale price," he said. "It skews all of your costs and your profitability starts to get threatened.”