How The Witty & Co thrived with local support
When married couple Simon and Greg opened The Witty & Co in 2019, they had both just left the corporate world and were looking for what was next. They had always dreamed of opening their own home goods store closer to retirement, but the opportunity presented earlier than planned and they decided to dive in. Before opening their doors, they’d lived in Cambridge, Ontario for over 10 years but mainly spent their time working in Toronto and across North America. They wanted something that would help them become more active in the community and do something local. So, in November 2019, they opened The Witty & Co’s doors. Their carefully curated retail store focuses on entertaining with categories for home, bar, food, garden and apothecary. Inspired by old general stores, the store was a way to bring little pieces of their travels home to Cambridge. We connected with them to hear about their experience as small business owners and how their community played a key role in their success.
Rogers Business: Where did the idea for your small business begin? What inspired you to start the business?
Simon: It was kind of our retirement plan, initially. But we were given a chance to get out of corporate and we thought maybe now is the time. Maybe we just do it early and take life a little bit slower. And maybe we do it for longer. We were inspired to do it by each other, really. By wanting a better life for each other. We were working non-stop and missing out on the good part of life. Once we started doing this, Sunday became our ‘visit day’. Everybody in the neighbourhood comes and visits the store on Sunday. It really makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger.
Greg: It’s a sense of community. We walk to work now in 5 minutes, which is very different from our past lives. We still work a lot but it’s a different type of work from our previous jobs.
Rogers Business: What made you choose your current location?
Simon: We live four blocks from downtown in an old, settled community. We really felt like we were missing out, leaving all the time. So, we picked our location because of close proximity, but we’re also on one of the busiest streets in Cambridge. We were also looking for a place with lots of windows. The landlord was really great and put in additional windows. We wanted a store that focused on community so it was really important that if you were walking past, you could see who was in the store.
Rogers Business: What was the biggest lesson you’ve learned as small business owners?
Greg: When we opened in November 2019, we never would have thought the pandemic or what happened in 2020 would happen. Having our business shut down in March 2020 for extended periods of time, we learned to be flexible. We learned different ways to still engage with our community and figured out ways to stay open as a business whether it be from delivery, curbside, website enhancements. We appreciate the community so much for keeping us open during this process because it hasn’t been easy for anybody in the last two to three years.
Rogers Business: How did you or do you get the word out about your business?
Simon: At the beginning and, still today, social media is still our biggest method. We do it all ourselves – photography, the website, running social media. It’s a lot of work. We’re very visual and the products we pick are really pretty, so we work the visual medium. We do a little bit of everything on Instagram. We’ve got a bunch of how-tos and do a lot of new product features. We get a lot of customers posting about our products and their favourites. We like to share all that.
Greg: It feels good and authentic to us and people engage with it. Simon makes bouquets every Friday, they’re called our Market Bouquets. We’ll post that every Friday which drives a bunch of engagement as well.
Rogers Business: What is your best-selling product? Did your business offering change during the pandemic?
Simon: We do a lot of imported Italian goods. We couple with a wonderful lady, @buonappetitomercato, and she uses a lot of our products in her cooking, in her Instagram, and she also bakes fresh focaccia for the store each week. She’s a big driver of that as well.
Greg: And who doesn’t love Italian food? Food is a comfort. It did really well throughout COVID because that’s what we were allowed to sell. And people love to eat. And they love to eat good food.
Simon: Pre-made cocktails and making your own cocktails also really took off during COVID. Plants did really well too. We also did and continue to do a ton of dog stuff and that continues to be a really great seller for us. And the same with self-care. COVID helped us connect because people were looking for stuff for their house.
Rogers Business: If your business has a secret ingredient what would it be?
Greg: Honestly, it’s our customers. We’re really present on the sales floor all the time. We’re fortunate to live in a small community where our customers are regulars. When you go above and beyond for your customers, you win. And our customers are our favourite thing. Spending a Saturday on the sales floor is my favourite time of the week.
Rogers Business: What is the greatest reward you’ve gotten as small business owners?
Simon: I think, really, to get to be part of the community and to get to spend more time with each other, and our dogs. To feel present. For a long time, it just felt like we were running. And now it just feels like we can stop and take a breath and kind of enjoy everybody around us. We really look forward to those long conversations when people come in and we get to catch up. That feels really nice.
Greg: Because in our previous worlds, in corporate, we didn’t have that much time for the people around here. And in the last 3 years, we got to know a lot of people and we love it here. We love our community and we’re grateful to have this.
Rogers Business: What’s one thing everyone should know about your business?
Simon: We’re fun and inclusive. We really have something for everyone and that’s really important to us. And you can see yourself in the store. We get people in from so many different walks of life who come in and say ‘I can’t believe you have this’.
We never thought as two gay men who lived most of our lives in Toronto, that this was a possibility. Opening up a business where we’re openly gay, downtown in a small town in Ontario. Growing up, it just didn’t exist. So, to have it now and to have such a great response from our community, to really be embraced by the community, has been such an incredible experience for the two of us. That brings us a lot of pride. For us, always our most emotional time of year is when we launch our Pride window and get that response back from the community. It’s huge.
Greg: We’ve had so much support from them. The amount of parents who’ve come in and said ‘You’ve made my child feel like this is a safe space to shop’. That brings a tear to your eye. We’ve done Pride windows for two years and this year was the biggest year when people kept coming in and giving us hugs and saying ‘I can’t believe you’ve changed my child’s life’.
Rogers Business: Where can we find your business online?
Facebook: The Witty & Co