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Jan. 18, 2022 | Tuesday
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What constitutes a restaurant?
Queenston Mile built a full-service kitchen, though it hasn’t been set up. (Richard Harley/Niagara Now)

What makes a restaurant a restaurant? When does it become a snack bar? Or a cafe?

Whatever the answer, town council might soon have to make a decision as to exactly what constitutes a restaurant, and some local business owners fear a precedent could be set if the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake allows restaurants on agriculturally zoned properties.

The issue stems from controversy surrounding the newly-opened Queenston Mile Winery on Queenston Road. The owners of the winery plan to serve food during the day, which some local business owners feel is unfair.

The debate comes down to the semantics of what is and isn’t a restaurant. Queenston Mile claims it isn’t planning a restaurant, but simply wants to offer light food options to its customers while they’re enjoying a glass of wine, while others like Paul Harber, owner of Ravine Winery and Restaurant, say if you’re serving food that’s cooked in an on-site kitchen, then it has the capability to be a restaurant.

“If the food is processed, from received, prepared and served – that’s a restaurant. What they’ve built and what they’re asking for in zoning and licencing is for a restaurant, or would at least have the capability to be a restaurant operating seven days a week, 11 a.m. to two in the morning serving alcohol.”

Queenston Mile has already built and stocked a kitchen, dish washing station and prep room. Still, co-owner and president Andrew Howard says he doesn’t feel it constitutes a restaurant.

“We’re not going to have a separate restaurant. We don’t plan to do dinner service. We would like people to be able to come in and have a food and wine experience,” Howard said, adding that from a technical planning aspect, the winery won’t be applying for restaurant status.

“I don’t want people to misconstrue what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We want to do light food and wine pairings.”

“The application we have in I think calls it like a cafe or something,” he added.

He said he would like customers to be able to have a “food and wine experience.”

“So we do want to do food service. In the technical planning aspect, we haven’t asked for restaurant status.”

Alison Zalepa, general manager of Queenston Mile, says they won’t be the first agriculturally zoned winery to offer light food options.

Harber, who operates Ravine on a commercially zoned property, says it will be the first agriculturally zoned restaurant he’s aware of, and believes it isn’t fair to business owners who have abided by town bylaws and made efforts to be good neighbours for years.

“I hope that they are able to produce a winery on the site. I’m just worried as a resident: can this happen in my backyard? As a winery owner, can anybody who has a winery estate licence right now apply for it and get it? Everyone with (proper) acreage of property can have a farm winery but not everybody should have the privilege of popping up an event facility or restaurant anywhere in the rural parts of the municipality of Niagara-on-the-Lake.”

Harber said to him it’s about protecting Niagara-on-the-Lake’s rural lands.

“It’s protecting not just now, but the future of rural residential land, agricultural practices that need to be respected as well.”

He said he thinks the precedent set by Queenston Mile could disrupt the wine and restaurant industry in Niagara-on-the-Lake entirely, noting if anyone can apply for an estate winery licence on just 10 or 20 acres of land — which is proposed by council — then NOTL could end up with an over-saturation of wineries and restaurants.

If that happens, he thinks it could affect business right down to the tourist district on Queen Street, noting there would be little reason for business owners to pay hefty rent fees if they could just go buy rural land and open up shop, or latch into an estate winery.

“I don’t think anybody really grasps it. If you like living in Niagara-on-the-Lake because you’re out on a concession or a line, and you’re in farm country, just know that if you don’t own the farm that is beside you, it could be flipped to an event facility if this goes through — it’s possible.”

He said if wineries are allowed estate licences on 20 acres or more, and if those wineries are allowed to operate restaurants, there’s “a lot of parcels of land that could then be converted into (restaurants).

“Do all the residents know that they could be living beside a restaurant or event facility in the near future if this does go through?”

He said he’s been asked about what it could mean for the town’s future.

“The questions that I’m being asked are, ‘can any farm have this now if this goes through?’ That scares me.”

Queenston Mile management feels differently about how their plans could affect agriculture in the area. Howard and Zalepa say they think allowing wineries to make an additional source of income is beneficial to the agricultural community.

“The Provincial Policy Statement and the greenbelt plan basically say farmers need to find ways to thrive from a business perspective. We need to start being fiscally responsible as businesses and acting like businesses, so that’s what we’re trying to do,” Zalepa said.

“So (we are in alignment with) all of the provincial and regional plans. We’re an agricultural business that’s trying to be smart and think like a business and be profitable.”

He said there is a “misperception” the winery opened without the proper permits.

“There was an email sent to a neighbour that actually had the wrong date on it,” he said.

The town confirmed it made a clerical error on the date for the original permit and that Queenston Mile did nothing wrong.

The winery got its approval to open in early November.

“So a lot of our neighbours think we opened without permits, but we had the approvals … we wouldn’t have opened without our permits.”

He admitted the winery did build a kitchen, but said it “worked with the (town) of Niagara-on-the-Lake and the building inspectors right through the whole process.”

“We responded every time (the town) wanted us to do anything. We worked with the head of inspections really closely during the process.”

He said the kitchen was built with foresight to the future.

“Rather than building it twice, we put the kitchen in place,” Howard said “We could have pulled the kitchen equipment out of there if (the inspector) needed us to. The kitchen equipment essentially is stored in place because it’s not functional … we couldn’t run the kitchen right now.”

He says the town inspector told the winery not to hook up the exhaust fan.

“I don’t want to deceive anyone. ‘Cause we’re not applying for restaurant status, but we do want to serve food. We don’t plan to have like a ‘dining room’. We want to have food and wine experiences. We absolutely want to serve food. We’ve built a beautiful kitchen, once we’re allowed to actually have a kitchen and install it and hook it up.”

Harber also wonders if the kitchen and winery meet all the necessary planning criteria.

Howard said a lot of wineries do their food service as an “after thought” and wind up trying to retro-fit their place to safely and efficiently serve food. “So we’ve installed a walk-in freezer and a walk-in fridge.”

Zalepa said they “learned the hard way” at Creekside, a partner winery to Queenston Mile.

“We’re constantly retro-fitting and redoing what we (already) did,” said Howard.

He said right now the winery is a “farmgate on its way to having an estate licence.”

“We don’t have the rights to do a full restaurant,” he said. “If we wanted to we’d have to go back to council for a new set of permits.”

Howard couldn’t say what kind of food is going to be on the menu, or when they plan to start serving.

“If I thought that this process was a logical process, then I’d say we would have done it a year ago. So I’ve stopped trying to guess.”

He said he isn’t sure how many tables there will be either.

“You won’t know until (the fire department) and everyone else gets involved in what your capacity is. We think we could have a private event for 100 to 150 people. But we’re not actually asking for outdoor events … It’s hard to decide when and what we could do until we have the permits.”

A winery is currently automatically allowed 24 outdoor events per year according to town bylaws.

Howard says it took the winery a year just to get a farm gate licence, which allows the winery to retail wine.

“I feel like it shouldn’t be quite so hard. It’s been a difficult, expensive process.”

He said the winery plans to increase production to 5,000 cases based on what they’re making there already.

“We’re a big farm, we’re a big chunk of land, and we have a lot of acres,” said Howard.

He said he thinks Prince Edward County is a “good example” of how industries are changing.

The wine industry protects the agriculture business, he said.

“The notion of helping farmers be competitive and viable.”

The kitchen is all restaurant-grade stainless steel.

They’ve also spent $80,000 on a septic system.

Currently the winery is serving a small charcuterie platter.

He said everything is there with the hope of the winery acquiring an estate licence.

Zalepa said the winery isn’t intending to do a lunch service either.

“It’s the definition of a restaurant that people are struggling with,” said Zalepa.

She said she doesn’t think allowing light food at the winery would negatively affect other restaurants.

“We’re better as an industry when we all are working at a really high level … So I encourage other wineries and restaurants to deliver at a level that I can be proud of.”

“Restricting competition is the worst thing you can do,” said Zalepa. “There’s no quick buck in the wine industry.”

The property is 50 acres in total and shares grapes with Creekside.

Wine has been made for Creekside in the building for “eight or 10 years,” Howard said.

“We’re not going to have a separate restaurant. We don’t plan to do dinner service.”