Calen McNeil, Co-owner Zambris & Big Wheel Burger

Calen McNeil is a co-owner of popular Victoria eateries Zambri’s and Big Wheel Burger.

How are your restaurants coping right now, and how are you feeling about how this will all play out?
Both Zambri’s and Big Wheel Burger decided to close its stores in Victoria down. Big Wheel Burger also just completed construction and hiring of 21 staff there and have not opened business due to the crisis.

This obviously is a huge blow to our staff’s livelihood as we have been forced to lay off 120 staff this past week. We feel it was important to get our staff the government support they may need as soon as possible.

We also wanted to give our team the time to survey small business support offered by the Government and properly assess how we move forward with the most sustainable business plan considering the COVID-19 outbreak. Some of this will be out of our control, but we are smart, creative people and we are planning on re-opening the stores when we can. This is most likely looking like a fundamental change in how we need to do business and we will adapt.

What advice are you giving your team for riding this out?
This is a very stressful time for our staff, and we are looking to get them back to work in some capacity. First and foremost is the safety as well as the safety of our customers and vendors. We are confident this can be done safely and will proceed with our plan assuming the situation on the ground allows for that.

What is the opportunity in the challenge?
Through our Big Wheel Community Foundation, we are looking to raise money to provide food at no cost to at-risk populations in our community which will include restaurant and hospitality workers, front end care workers and food banks and shelters. In conjunction with this we will offer take-out through our take-out app. Zambri’s is launching a take-out app in the coming week as well.

We will be offering touchless take-out and home delivery and consulting with health and food safety professionals to apply best practices. We will be changing the flow of our restaurants to adapt to these changes.

We anticipate this acute phase to last as long as three months and are hoping that the changes we make in our stores will allow for us to be viewed as a complement to the food supply chain in Victoria and Nanaimo. There are many people in our city that don’t have support and or ability to leave in this situation and we want to be there for them.

What advice have you applied or are you applying from previous experiences coping through crises?
I encourage other restauranteurs to do a business plan and one for cash flow as soon as possible. Planning is key to crisis like these. The plans will also be essential when seeking support from your bank.

Adapting quickly will be key. Cutting all unnecessary expenses and deciding what business model would work best for your product is also important.

What are your resources right now? Do you have a mentor supporting you, peer group, books you read?
A great resource for business is the BDC — Business Development Bank. Their website is very helpful. I would also check out the CRA website to get familiar with all the government programs available.

What advice do you have for others experiencing this alongside you?
We are lucky to have a strong team with access to a CFO as well as an in-house microbiologist to assist with best practices. If anyone needs advice or to be pointed in the right direction they can email me at and I will offer as much help as I can. Happy to forward examples of business plans and our cash flow templates.

My advice would be to plan, plan and plan again. There will be many small businesses that will fail sadly but knowing that early will help with not getting further into debt which will cause even more pain.

This will pass eventually so try and build a new plan that can keep you afloat until things improve.