Special to The Lake Report
Restaurants can now open for up to 10 people to dine-in but some NOTL operators are taking a wait-and-see approach to determine if it is financially feasible.
Justine Lakeit, front-of-house manager at Caroline Cellars' Farmhouse Cafe, is one of several restaurant managers who said the 10-person limit makes it difficult to reopen successfully and provide a stable work environment.
“It's a challenge to have 10 people. We are only open for lunch, so our takeout options are somewhat limited,” Lakeit told The Lake Report.
“We do have great support from local businesses who order lunch, but not everybody is working at the office. It's not the same as if we were open for dinner, since our takeout options are limited, so it's not necessarily always financially stable.”
The restaurant has been closed since Dec. 26 and management is thinking about reopening if Niagara goes into the COVID orange zone. “We don't want to bring back our staff only to have to lay them off again in a couple of weeks if we end up back in grey zone,” said Lakeit.
Having the winery provides some income, she noted, but many restaurant owners don't have that additional revenue source.
Paul Dietsch's sole income is from his restaurant, the Sand Trap Pub & Grill, which has reopened. Before the pandemic, the restaurant had 26 employees and now is down to six or seven.
“Right now, we are paying our bills, our rent, our utilities and our day-to-day operational expenses, but it's definitely not profitable yet,” Dietsch said.
He feels his restaurant would be able to support more than 10 people with social distancing. “Before, when we were in orange, we still had six feet of separation and still followed protocols with hand washings and social distancing,” he said.
He finds most people are still using takeout as the primary method of supporting local restaurants. “We can still get only 10 people inside. That's not very many people. We are licensed for 155 here,” he said.
The pandemic has forced Dietsch to dip into his savings. “We had a solid financial background going into COVID. We are dipping into those reserve funds, most definitely,” he said
It is helpful that the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake has cut red tape and allowed restaurants to continue operating outdoor patios again this summer, he said.
Wage and rent subsidies, and other programs, have been welcome. “Every little bit helps, but even with that support, it's still not enough,” he said.
Lakeit and Deitsch aren't the only restaurateurs who believe being restricted to 10 customers is not sustainable.
Chris Rigas, owner of the Old Firehall in St. Davids, noted restaurants still need to pay to turn on their equipment no matter how many people are inside. “Light, heat … costs you the same when you have 10 or 50 people,” he said.
Limited capacity isn't a long-term solution for restaurant owners, he said. And Rigas noted he tries to support his employees, but he is constrained.
“They are on unemployment and you try to give them as many hours as you can to help things. We have been restricted with the business we can do. If an owner hasn't made money in a year, his ability to help is very limited.”
He said many people in Niagara rely on the hospitality sector to operate at normal capacity and restaurants are a safe option that should not have so many restrictions.
“The provincial data says we are the second-lowest setting” for COVID transmission, Rigas said.