It’s an exciting time to be in the hospitality business in Canada’s second-fastest growing city. A marketing campaign launched in March 2023 to build on the tourism recovery experienced in Nova Scotia as COVID-19 restrictions loosened in 2022, and a total of $8.6 million marketing dollars will be spent on attracting tourists this year. Nova Scotia welcomed 1.9 million visitors last year (over a million more visitors than in 2021), and entrepreneurs across the province are hopeful those figures will be surpassed in 2023.

While many economists in Canada are predicting a soft recession ahead, Halifax’s small and medium-sized businesses in the service and entertainment sectors are bucking the trend. According to recent Square data, Halifax area businesses are seeing strong year-over-year gains so far in 2023.

“Over the first three months of 2023, Halifax area bars and restaurants using Square’s tools and services posted 59% growth year over year – with growth from Leisure and Entertainment-related businesses up 62%,” says Karisa Marra, a business expert at technology company Square. “With the summer tourism season ahead, the region’s small and medium-sized service-oriented businesses are set to continue to create jobs and economic opportunities.”

Voted one of the top three cafes in Halifax, and known for their friendly service and appealing aesthetics, the Dilly Dally Coffee Cafe is eagerly anticipating the return of international tourists after two rocky years of COVID restrictions. Here, we speak with co-owner Laura Draeger about the small business community in Halifax, Dilly Dally’s culture of kindness, keeping calm amidst economic uncertainty, using Square to streamline operations at the cafe and the true meaning of hospitality.

On supporting the local economy and the small business community in Halifax

There’s a real entrepreneurial spirit in Halifax. It’s an old city, but it has a really young vibe, and so many people and business owners are moving here from all over. Our population has never seen such growth, and it’s so exciting to see people investing in the city. I’m the vice chair of the Quinpool Road Mainstreet District Association, and we’re made up of over 150 businesses dedicated to improving and beautifying the area (like with the Halifax Mural Festival) and getting more feet on the street. I’ve been involved with the association for six years, and it’s a cause very close to my heart. I love the camaraderie of so many small businesses working together towards a common goal.

At Dilly Dally, when it comes to community we are also focused on offering local, small batch, market to table coffee, food, wine and beer. We stock Goodmore Kombucha, which is hugely popular at the cafe, and we brew North Mountain coffee. The way I see it, if we spread the money that our guests are spending to local suppliers, who employ locals, we are helping to sustain the local economy, which is very important to us.

On keeping calm in the face of economic uncertainty while creating a culture of kindness

Like everyone in the hospitality industry, the past couple of years have been tough for us. Between supply chain issues, government lockdowns, having to close down and then reopen, and then close down and reopen again, it’s been a lot for everyone. But I try to face these challenges by just putting myself in the mindset that we can only control what happens within these four walls — everything else, the greater economy, that’s all beyond our control. And nothing the economy can throw at us could possibly be worse than the pandemic!

Concentrating on what we can control allows us to focus on things like: “Are we treating our staff well? Are we paying good wages and splitting tips properly? Are we promoting good work-life balance? Are we creating a comfortable and safe environment for everyone who walks through our doors?” As a manager, I never want anyone on my staff to have that sinking Sunday night “I am stressed about going to work tomorrow” feeling. This is an awesome team that I’m really proud of, and it’s essential that they don’t just feel like numbers on a paycheque. I think we do a good job of nurturing that feeling of respect and recognition. Most of the staff have been around at least a year, and many have been here for three or four. And we just had a chef return to us! I feel really grateful to work with such amazing people who like coming to work as much as I do.

Our whole operation is based on creating a culture and environment of kindness, for both the staff and our customers. Consider our name: we want to encourage people to “dilly dally” in our shop, to spend some time, to chat with the staff and get to know each other. We have a comfortable space that attracts a wide demographic of customers, from 99 year-olds to parents with babies. People know that they will be greeted with a friendly smile and a big “Good morning! Where’s your dog today?” We’ve really carved out a community on our little corner of the city.

Square Register: Payments and point of sale, streamlined.

The first fully integrated POS terminal for any kind of business.

On using Square to streamline operations and grow the business

I previously used Square while I was setting up a franchise of restaurants across Canada with my business partners, so I’ve been a die-hard fan since 2009! At Dilly Dally we use the Square Register, which is just so beautiful! Everyone who uses it comments on how elegant it looks. And the back-of-house analytics are fantastic — I love being able to make real-time changes from my phone, it’s very helpful, as is the customer support team.

Square was a godsend to us when COVID hit. I built out our online platform with Square Online three days into the pandemic, when we first closed down. I put our swag and gift cards up for sale on the site, and then announced on social media that people could purchase stuff online. And we got our first order within three minutes of being live! Now, we sell food and drinks online, and I can’t believe we didn’t do this before! And it turns out some customers really prefer to order online and then do contactless pickup in-store, so we’re able to give them what they want. We’ll never stop now that we’ve been so successful at selling online.

Dily dally 2

On the true meaning of hospitality

I believe that excellent customer service just comes down to the idea of hospitality. At the end of the day, that means making people comfortable, making them feel at home, anticipating their needs, and treating people with respect and kindness. You never know what kind of day someone’s having. We are located near a hospital — people come to the shop straight from there, and we can’t know what they are dealing with. It’s the least we can do to make them feel welcomed and appreciated, and like they belong. We also really make an effort to get to know people. We joke that at some coffee shops, the staff would write down a customer’s name on their coffee cup, but at Dilly Dally, we already know it! About 80% of our guests are regulars and returning customers, so I think we must be doing something right.