Customers of Courage Cookies enter and leave the pop-up shop in Toronto on Saturday, October 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

Customers of Courage Cookies enter and leave the pop-up shop in Toronto on Saturday, October 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

As the COVID-19 crisis cuts jobs, Canadians cash in on hobbies with ‘side hustles’

Side hustles such as mask-sewing and cooking capitalize on what is often treated as women’s unpaid labour

For Chelsea Hearty and Ian Moores, the recipe for success began with a midnight snack.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Hearty and Moores, who had worked in food and hospitality, were among the hundreds of thousands of workers who found themselves out of a job and with little to do during lockdown.

Moores decided to fill some time — and a late-night sugar craving — by baking. He got off the couch and put on an apron with a mission to make “the best cookie anyone’s ever had.”

After about an hour of tinkering with a family recipe, Moores had baked up what Hearty described as a “perfect little angel pillow” of a treat.

A few bites in, Hearty and Moores knew they had a buttery hit on their hands.

“We’ve always wanted to work for ourselves,” said Moores. “This was our opportunity to do that.”

As the pandemic prompts employers to slash jobs, a number of crafty Canadians are turning their hobbies into “side hustles,” supplemental sources of income that often double as a creative outlet.

From thrifting to mask-sewing to jewelry-making, almost any artisanal enterprise can find a customer base online.

Etsy Canada, an online marketplace that’s popular for side businesses, says new shop openings increased by more than 250 per cent during its most recent quarter, compared to the same period last year.

Some critics see side hustles as a symptom of a precarious labour market that leaves workers with no choice but to enter the gig economy.

But business owners like Hearty and Moores, whose snack led them to found Courage Cookies, credit the pandemic with giving them the push to abandon the daily grind for a shot at self-made success.

The “angel pillow” was the first flavour in their Courage Cookies repertoire. The operation has since expanded from the best-friends-turned-business-partners’ kitchen into an online delivery business operating out of a commercial space, and a semi-permanent pop-up store at Toronto’s Stack’d market.

The pandemic brought Jamie Rajf’s career in the music industry to an abrupt halt. But it also pushed her to follow a childhood passion for hunting down “treasures” in unlikely places by opening up an online vintage shop.

In between job applications, the 29-year-old spent months scouring garage sales and hole-in-the-wall stores for mid-century housewares, carefully curating each decades-old find to appeal to Instagram buyers.

Since launching Good Day Vintage, an Instagram business operated out of her Toronto home, in August, Rajf said she’s sold most of her inventory, turning a profit of a few thousand dollars.

“I have really learned from this that it’s important to have something that you work on that you have total control over,” said Rajf, who found full-time employment over the summer. “I can get out of it what I put into it, as opposed to working for someone else.”

Jeff Donaldson, a doctoral candidate at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration, said today’s workers need multiple streams of income as a form of “insurance” against industrial disruption.

“Side hustles are not meant to replace your main source of income,” said Donaldson, who specializes in emergency preparedness. “They’re meant to provide insulation.”

Shauna Brail, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Management and Innovation, noted that while some side hustles are passion projects, others are “survival jobs.”

“These are often short-term solutions, particularly for those … who haven’t necessarily chosen to work in the gig economy,” said Brail. “In a way, it’s chosen them, because it’s the last possible option.”

She pointed to women in the workforce who have shouldered the brunt of the economic fallout of the pandemic, particularly mothers who have been tasked with taking on extra caregiving duties.

Statistics Canada reported last month that employment among mothers with school-aged children had nearly returned to pre-shutdown levels. But the agency said the number of mothers working less than half their usual hours in September was still 70 per cent higher than before the pandemic in February.

Brail noted that many popular side hustles, such as mask-sewing and cooking, capitalize on what is traditionally treated as women’s unpaid domestic labour.

As Azure Johnson stitches together a sewing business from scratch, the mother of four has been thinking about what she’s lost and what she’s gained since March.

Johnson, who is Plains Cree from the Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis, Alta., said her identity was wrapped up in her work helping vulnerable people build life skills at an Edmonton non-profit.

But when the shutdown left her without childcare, Johnson made the difficult call to take a leave of absence so she could look after her boys.

“I didn’t know how my bills were going to get paid, or the next time I could go get groceries,” she said. “All I knew is that we were home, and we needed to be safe, and we needed to have a backup plan.”

Then, Johnson ran into a problem that would lead her toward a financial solution.

Her right ear isn’t fully developed as a result of a congenital condition, so she can’t wear traditional masks. Instead, Johnson pulled out her sewing machine to create masks that tie at the back of the neck.

At first, she sold the masks to family and friends, then word got around she was making face coverings for people who needed different styles and sizes.

RAED MORE: Canadian companies uncover market for mask accessories amid COVID-19

Customers started placing so many bulk orders that her sewing machine couldn’t keep up, Johnson said, so she found a distributor. By late October, she estimates she’d sold a total of about 8,000 masks.

But Johnson didn’t stop there. She’d always had a flair for putting an “Indigenous twist” on familiar items. And her sons, who had dutifully helped her sew, trim and sweep, had some ideas of their own.

Azure and Co. has grown into a family business offering products ranging from teddy bears clad in traditional prints to T-shirts encouraging Indigenous men to take pride in their braids.

When she left her job, Johnson felt like she lost her “position in the community.” But she’s since found other ways to give back, including volunteering and making specialized masks for First Nations schools.

It’s not the same as what she had, but it is her own, and Johnson is looking forward to seeing where Azure and Co. can take her.

“I’ve come to a point where I think it just may be a choice for me to actually not return to work nine-to-five,” she said. “I’ll just do my own thing and help in my own lane.”

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A woman wears a face mask and shield to curb the spread of COVID-19 while walking in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
57 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health region

Thirty people in the region are in hospital, 16 of whom are in intensive care

The TNRD is undertaking a Master Trails Plan for the community of Blue River. (Darcy Lawrey / Pexels Photo)
TNRD to develop trails plan for Blue River

A survey is available for public input on the TNRD website.

From left: Councillor Lucy Taylor, Councillor Barry Banford, Councillor Bill Haring, Mayor Merlin Blackwell, Councillor Lynne Frizzle, Councillor Lyle Mckenzie and Councillor Shelley Sim. (District of Clearwater photo)
District of Clearwater council approves tax rate increases for 2021

The 2021 tax rate bylaw will see adoption May 6.

Ian and Roger Nadeau are shown in front of one of their Thompson Valley Charters coaches. (TVC photo)
Hwy 5 Kamloops to Edmonton bus run delayed until May 20

Thompson Valley Charters delays start of new route to abide by BC Health travel advisory

A vial of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is shown at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. The White House says it is making plans to share up to 60 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
65 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

The total number of cases in the region is now at 11,075 since the pandemic began

Jose Marchand prepares Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination doses at a mobile clinic for members of First Nations and their partners, in Montreal, Friday, April 30, 2021. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is coming under fire after contradicting the advice Canadians have been receiving for weeks to take the first vaccine against COVID-19 that they’re offered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Trudeau says he is glad he got AstraZeneca, vaccines are only way out of pandemic

‘The most important thing is to get vaccinated with the first vaccine offered to you’

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dip in COVID-19 cases with 572 newly announced in B.C.

No new deaths have been reported but hospitalized patients are up to 481, with 161 being treated in intensive care

Solar panels on a parking garage at the University of B.C. will be used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter captured to supply a vehicle filling station. (UBC video)
UBC parkade project to use solar energy for hydrogen vehicles

Demonstration project gets $5.6M in low-carbon fuel credits

FILE – A student arrives at school as teachers dressed in red participate in a solidarity march to raise awareness about cases of COVID-19 at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. ‘should be able to’ offer 1st dose of COVID vaccine to kids 12+ by end of June: Henry

Health Canada authorized the vaccine for younger teens this morning

A woman in the Harrison Mills area was attacked by a cougar on Tuesday, May 4. B.C. Conservation Officers killed two male cougars in the area; the attack was determined to be predatory in nature. (File photo)
2 cougars killed following attack on woman in Agassiz area

Attack victim remains in hospital in stable condition

A woman wears a face mask and shield to curb the spread of COVID-19 while walking in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. CDC updates info, acknowledging small respiratory droplets can spread COVID-19

Large droplets, not aerosols had been fixture of public health messaging for many months

A picture of Shirley Ann Soosay was rendered from a postmortem photographer and circulated on social media. (DDP graphic)
B.C. genealogist key to naming murder victim in decades-old California cold case

In July 1980, Shirley Ann Soosay was raped and stabbed to death

Mary Kitagawa was born on Salt Spring Island and was seven years old when she was interned along with 22,000 B.C. residents in 1942. (B.C. government video)
B.C. funds health services for survivors of Japanese internment

Seniors describe legacy of World War II displacement

Most Read