It was early March and Giacomo Badali had just got a new arm of his business supplying fresh food to various restaurants in the Toronto area up and running.

His family has been in the fresh food importing business for several generations, and he and his father Anthony had already been supplying to distributors that in turn cater to hotels, airports, schools and food processors. Supplying restaurants directly seemed like a natural step.

That is, until the pandemic prompted the City of Toronto to shut down all restaurants — their key customer base.

"It was almost as if it was the next day," said Badali, pictured with his father, above. "We signed on the dotted line and then the news went out."

Unable to cater to patrons inside their dining areas, many restaurants pivoted to serve customers via takeout and deliveries. So, Badali and his father looked to reposition Crisp, their new venture, to deliver fresh food to consumers at home. That meant developing an e-commerce portal, which Badali says neither of them have any background in or experience with.

"Our end of the business, with importing and then selling to distributors, it's pretty old school," Badali said. "There's no marketing, there's no tech, there's no web development. It's just a lot of old-fashioned phone calls and handshakes and stuff like that."

Badali took steps to set up an online store himself, but it was difficult, he says. Then he heard about ShopHERE, a program launched by Digital Main Street to help independent businesses like Crisp go online, with an e-commerce portal built and launched for free within days.

The program is supported by several community and corporate partners, including Shopify, Google, Mastercard and Microsoft. As well, volunteers from several companies, including Scotiabank, have offered to donate their time to help build these virtual storefronts.

ShopHERE, launched in May and available until the end of August, aims to develop 3,000 online stores for businesses and artists. The City of Toronto says nearly 50,000 Toronto businesses, roughly 7,400 of them restaurants, bars or cafés, are eligible for ShopHERE. The program works directly with independent businesses and co-ordinates with the tech volunteers separately to get these virtual stores built quickly.

Within a week, Crisp had a sleek online portal using Shopify's technology, where customers can purchase fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat and other foods available for home delivery.

Badali worked directly with a Digital Service Squad member at ShopHERE, who helped guide him on how to make pages, set up his checkout process and organize his products to make it easier for customers, among other things. ShopHERE then works with tech volunteers, such as those from Scotiabank’s Digital Factory, separately to build the store quickly using Shopify.

"The experience front to end was fast, but amazing for us," Badali said. – which Stephen Hwang, a solutions architect at Scotiabank's Digital Factory, helped to build – went live about three weeks ago. Orders initially started rolling in from friends and family, but it is now seeing an influx of traffic, Badali said.

Hwang, who has been with the Bank for more than 20 years, said volunteering with ShopHERE was a way for him and his Digital Factory co-workers to leverage their skills and contribute to the community.

“The main thing we wanted to do was to help with the recovery process, any way that we could,” he said.

He is one of 45 Digital Factory volunteers who built 179 websites on their own time, outside of their work hours.

“The Scotiabank Digital Factory is delighted to participate in the ShopHere initiative as it leverages our collective digital roots,” said KL Wong, Global Head of Engineering, Digital Banking, Scotiabank. “Many of our engineers joined the Bank from eCommerce companies so they know what’s required to develop an online presence quickly. As local small businesses adapt and pivot though this pandemic, we’re happy to help them enhance their digital presence, so they can thrive in today’s new normal.”

Helping to make these tough times a little bit easier for these businesses is what prompted Jean Joseph, who also works at Scotiabank's Digital Factory, to volunteer his time with ShopHERE. Joseph, a software engineer who works as a technical lead for the Bank, has built online storefronts for an electrical wiring business and an optical shop, among others.

Helping the community at this time gives him a sense of fulfillment, Joseph said.

“Businesses are suffering, and everything now is moving towards digital," he said. "I hope that the websites I have built for these businesses will help them to survive.”

Crisp is still not as busy as Badali would like, but if it wasn't for home delivery, "we wouldn't have anything at all. So, we're grateful for it."

He said he and his father feel fortunate to live in a place where there are programs, like ShopHERE, being created to help them make it to the other side of the pandemic.

"We're still confident in the project and we want to work with all those restaurants because we love food,” Badali said. “Fresh food and fresh produce, that's our background, that's in our DNA. So, we're still happy to be here, we just need to kind of restructure for now and try and do something that keeps us relevant until those restaurants come back online."