Hamilton’s own Steeltown Garage Co. was among 30 businesses — selected from thousands — across the country to receive a special $5,000 FedEx small-business grant earlier this month.
The #SupportSmall grant initiative launched in late June and invited small business owners from across the country to apply for the grant over a period of six weeks.
James Anderson, a spokesperson for FedEx, said, in previous years, the company used this grant initiative to underscore the impact of small businesses as one of the largest employers in Canada and to tell their stories.
This year though, during a time which for many small business owners would be the “most stressful times of their career,” Anderson said, FedEx decided to streamline the process for applying.
The response was huge.
“We had 3,000 applications submitted in six weeks,” he said. “The team had a very hard time narrowing it down to 30.”
Anderson said that those evaluating the applications were looking for where they felt the money would do the most good and make the most impact. The application review period was condensed as well so as to get the cash flowing as soon as possible.
In the case of Steeltown Garage, the money came at the perfect time.
“It was almost too good to be true,” said Steeltown owner Jeff Campagna. “It’s not a make-or-break amount of money but it’s definitely a massive block that we can build on and use wisely.”
Campagna says they plan to invest the money in e-commerce to further improve their already impressive online presence and shopping experience.
Steeltown Garage Co., a clothing retailer and cafe touting the motorcycle lifestyle opened up shop on Barton near James North three and a half years ago.
Since then, they’ve become an iconic Hamilton brand and have cultivated a reputation for quality and inclusivity.
“We were making it up as we went but the core of the idea was to create a really cool inclusive environment that we’ve seen in other parts of the world,” Campagna said.
“We wanted to challenge the stigma and perceptions of motorcyclists. We had an open-door policy and it became this positive and safe space in the community.”
Back in March, even before Ontario declared a pandemic-related state of emergency, Campagna and the Steeltown team made the difficult choice to close the doors to the shop.
“We have a very small, very interactive space with lots of physical greetings and intimate conversations happening,” he said. “Very early on it became obvious to us that it wasn’t a safe place.”
Since closing the shop in mid-March, the Steeltown team refocused their efforts on e-commerce and social media marketing to “keep the blood pumping throughout lockdown,” Campagna said.
Then George Floyd was murdered and the world cried out for change.
Campagna said he and the Steeltown team, like the rest of the world, was horrified by the news cycle that was dominated by Floyd’s gruesome murder and they knew they had to do something to address the world’s “racial reckoning” and support the demands for change.
“As a business that prides itself on inclusivity and being a safe place [this event] affects us and our diverse customer base directly,” he said. “For us, it was about more than letting our following know where we stand: we wanted to make a statement.”
In the ensuing weeks, on Sundays, 100 per cent of Steeltown Garage Co.’s profits were donated to organizations like the Minnesota Freedom Fund or the Canadian-based Urban Alliance on Race Relations.
“We wanted to help those who are actually making a difference,” Campagna said, noting it wasn’t a huge amount of money and it was a hard time to be making a donation, but the hope was to inspire “a couple people out there to put what they do have behind positive endeavours.”
It was this show of integrity as well as Steeltown’s business savvy that caught the eyes of FedEx’s grant committee.
“Steeltown is an inspiration,” Anderson said. “They’re agile and passionate about what they do and that really spoke to us.
“If there’s ever a time to be agile and flexible, this is it; this is the time to think clearly outside the box.”
Currently, Steeltown Garage’s shop remains closed for indoor shopping due to limited space, but the team is running a curbside coffee window out of their garage door.
“We’re functioning on a smaller scale than we anticipated at this point,” Campagna said. “But we hope to use this building block (the grant) to seed some growth and come through the other side of the pandemic stronger than ever.”
Photo courtesy Steeltown Garage Co.’s Facebook page