Need your skates sharpened? Hamilton mobile businesses see pandemic-driven surge (GoWrench)

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Sean Green, owner and head mechanic of a mobile skate sharpening business, is seen here sharpening skates in the back of his fully equipped van.

When the owners of Velofix, a mobile bike repair service, bought a skate sharpening machine last year, they thought it might be a good way to keep busy in the winter.

Then the pandemic came along.

Hockey, which they expected to be their main source of customers, was mostly cancelled. Their new tool sat largely idle until Boxing Day — when suddenly, business went bonkers.

“That week, we were flooded with people booking and calling,” said Ancaster resident Allison Green, who founded Skate to Go with her husband Sean. “It’s been like that ever since.”

The lockdown, prompted by rising COVID cases across the province, meant most recreational activities were shut down — but outdoor ice rinks remain open.

It has also restricted big-box sports stores to curbside pickup only, and most aren’t offering skate sharpening. Add that to a broken sharpening machine at Pier 8, and an unusually high demand for bike repair this winter, and it was a recipe for an onslaught for the Greens’ mobile businesses.

“We almost couldn’t keep up with the demand,” said Allison, noting a huge draw for their services is that they are contactless and payments are made online.

As politicians plead with residents to stay home, people are increasingly seeking out such services, beyond just food and beverage delivery. Several local mobile businesses say 2020 has been their best year yet.

Velofix’s business increased by 50 per cent last year. They’ve added a second truck and increased their coverage area to add Halton and Niagara to their previous turf of Hamilton and Brantford.

Josh Lombardo-Bottema’s mobile business, GoWrench Auto, has also seen a pandemic-driven surge. The company’s “fully outfitted service vans” perform automotive service and repairs in clients’ driveways and parking spots, often drawing crowds of curious neighbours and mechanical hobbyists, says Lombardo-Bottema.

“We do get people stopping by,” he said, noting a visit from a chatty neighbour is par for the course. “We also get some customers who ask a lot of questions … ‘What’s that? What does that do? Is that broken?’”

GoWrench has corporately-run locations in Hamilton, Burlington and Ottawa, but services most of the GTA. It almost doubled its business last year and Lombardo-Bottema says he hopes to triple it this year.

“We were having to really market ourselves to get out there, but now people are more actively searching for low-touch, high-convenience, at-home services,” says Lombardo-Bottema, who founded the business in 2015. “We’re riding a good tide.”

The company continues to expand its capacity, and has recently started servicing heavier vehicles such as transport trucks. About half of its business comes from households, while the rest is from fleets, such as police services, delivery companies and other service providers.

Lombardo-Bottema says he’s been told by clients that the at-home service helps demystify auto repair and builds trust. “At the shop, their vehicle goes behind this metal curtain. Here it is being done right in their driveway.”

But how do they manage driveway repairs in January? If it’s really not workable, the technicians will take the car to the company’s shop and bring it back when they’re done — but most of the time, they are able to make do. “Winters are getting warmer,” he added. “It’s really only a month and a bit that the weather can be (too) inclement.”

Mobile dog groomer Bark ‘N Park also saw a banner year in 2020, doubling its business. Owner Howard Tyrrell says he would have expected the same for 2021, but is starting the year off with a disadvantage: dog groomers have been ordered to close under the province’s lockdown orders, with no exceptions for those who provide mobile, contact-free service.

“Mobile pet groomers shouldn’t be included,” he said. “We provide curbside service. We can take the dog from six feet away.”

The people at Velofix are thankful bike repair is considered an essential service. They’re gearing up for another busy COVID year, which for Sean, means he can expect to make house calls to even more people getting back into cycling — and their long forgotten bikes.

“One specific bike was brought to the van that was obviously stored in a garage/barn,” he wrote in an email. “Besides the usual cobwebs and dust, I was slightly shocked to see the tires (front and back) were full of grass and leaves from, I assume, a family of mice that used it as a home. Now not much shocks me about bikes pulled out of garages.”



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