With a weary sense of deja vu, NOTL restaurateurs have once again closed their doors to indoor diners and turned their focus to takeout food.
Chairs are empty, cardboard cartons are piled on tables and servers take orders over the phone.
Some are open seven days a week, while others have reduced their hours to four or five days weekly. Others have decided not to open at all.
The shift to takeout is familiar territory and the impact on their businesses is top of mind, but all business owners worry most about their employees.
At The Grist, in St. Davids, proprietor Rob Begin says, “I’ve got 42 employees to worry about every day, because we can’t keep them all working right now.”
Begin is concerned for their well-being and also wonders whether some will come back.
For Ruffino’s executive chef and owner Ryan Crawford, keeping everyone healthy and happy is job one. “Our biggest mandate is to keep as many people employed as possible, in a safe work environment.”
David McDonald, the general manager at Bricks & Barley in Virgil, says, “We’ll have to see what’s feasible as we go on. We’re trying to keep people employed and contribute to the community with specials and family deals.”
The Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit will give eligible workers up to $300 per week, but Garrison House chef/owner David Watt notes the support for laid-off workers is inadequate.
“Hopefully they up the ante. How can someone live on $300 a week?”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Paul Dietsch, co-owner of the Sandtrap Pub.
“Staff are discouraged and worried financially. Christmas just ended and most people spent a little bit there. What family can live on $300 a week?” he said.
Ravine Estate Winery co-proprietor Paul Harber said, “We have 150 staff at our peak and 80 at this time of year, but we can’t keep them all now. We’ll keep as many as we can employed, working on summer programs and event planning.”
The provincial government has announced some financial support for businesses and while all say everything helps, the communication has been late and the amount has been reduced from previous lockdowns.
“Restaurants operate on razor-thin margins to start with, so this makes it really difficult,” Harber said. “We’ve been here before. We’re trying to stem the bleeding as much as possible. It’s a cash flow management game. We still have to pay all of our fixed costs.”
Costs, which in some cases, have gone up significantly.
Laryssa Cesta, co-owner of Pieza Pizzeria in Old Town, notes “cheese just went up 7.3 per cent. That’s huge for us.”
Cost increases and COVID restrictions have “made us really examine the business. We need to streamline to reduce costs, so we had to reduce our hours. We’re closed three days a week.”
There is an air of both fatigued fatalism and anchored optimism among the restaurateurs interviewed.
“It’s been a yoyo of a year. Things have been changing daily,” is how Harber describes it.
“It’s a little numbing,” admits Watt, adding, “It’s a bummer, but it could be worse.”
For Dietsch, “It’s been such a roller coaster and communication about new restrictions seems so last-minute. Let’s hope it’s short.”
Crawford says, “We’ve learned how to adapt, so we’re rolling with the punches. We’ll come through it.”
And Begin, whose restaurant opened in the middle of the pandemic, says, “We spent three years getting the place up and we’ve enjoyed a good degree of success. I hope we don’t lose the momentum we’ve built up. We try to stay positive and make the best of the situation.”
Cesta concedes that “it’s depressing. It seemed we were just getting back to moving forward when this happened. We’re just finding a way to hold on and ride these waves out.”
McDonald notes that people are “tired and frustrated and the hospitality industry has taken the brunt of this.”
Restaurants will be closed for indoor dining at least until Jan. 26 and uncertainty looms over whether that date will be extended.
All the restaurant operators The Lake Report spoke to expressed gratitude for community support during this lockdown, and for loyal customers ordering takeout while they have to keep their doors closed to indoor dining.
* See The Lake Report's special pullout guide to takeout dining, pages XX to XX.