Health & Safety
Nimble restaurateurs pivot to ‘grab-n-go’ to survive pandemic lockdown
By Audrey Carleton/The Canadian Press
Like many newly-reopened B.C. restaurants, Vancouver’s Como Taperia has started performing temperature tests and doling out hand sanitizer at the door.
It has also completely shifted focus, owner Shaun Layton says. Once a bustling tapas bar, Como was forced to pivot as it reopened in the second phase of B.C.’s coronavirus recovery plan. Where the restaurant normally seated 58, it now serves 29 patrons at a time and operates more like a market with seating than a bar. Tinned fish, liquor to-go, pre-prepared tapas dishes, and other packaged goods line large metal ULINE shelves, available for purchase from patrons eager to get in and out quickly.
It’s one of dozens of restaurants in B.C. moving swiftly to reopen under social distancing orders, including guidelines around handling food and beverages and limiting capacity to no more than 50 per cent at a time — measures that pose a challenge for many restaurateurs who are struggling to turn a profit with their usual patronage now reduced by half.
In fact, Layton says Como would have lost money had it reopened for full-fledged dining service at 50 per cent capacity, so they were left with no option but to shift gears. “You look at the actual how much it costs to start up the kitchen again, all of the prep for the food, and then to run at 50 per cent … It just wouldn’t work,” he says.
Rethinking menus, space
Restaurants elsewhere in the country face a similar predicament. Montreal’s Cafe Peche, for example, had only been open for a few weeks before lockdown orders were issued midway through March. Now facing the looming possibility of reopening in the next month while Quebec grapples with the highest coronavirus rates in the country, owner Jennifer Nguyen says she’s completely rethinking her menu and space layout.
“I’ll call it Peche 2.0,” Nguyen says of her plans for what the cafe-bar will look like once it opens at half capacity. “This is not the time to have a very elaborate menu … You have to be a very grab-n-go type of menu, gourmet sandwiches, stuff that you can just grab.”
Nguyen also notes that the majority of the ingredients she’ll be using for Peche’s new, pared-back menu will be locally-sourced. As a restaurateur, she feels a responsibility to bring what business she can to local food suppliers that have taken similar financial hits because of the pandemic.
She’s also taking advantage of time spent under lockdown to do last-minute renovations on the restaurant, the building for which she feels lucky to own. Nguyen and her team took advantage of mortgage freezes available through their bank — a luxury many restaurateurs lack. In fact, Restaurants Canada estimated in April that 30 per cent of the country’s restaurants will remain permanently closed after the pandemic subsides if widespread rent relief is not achieved.
To this end, Layton notes that Como would not have been able to reopen had his landlord not been amenable to applying for Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA), in which property owners and tenants each pay cover 25 per cent of rent costs, while the federal government subsidizes the remaining 50.
But even with commercial assistance, reopening on savings alone is difficult in an industry where average profit margins are in the single digits. He recommends that restaurateurs struggling take advantage of what they already have in storage, like collections of wine and canned goods.
“Everything we’re selling in the market is stuff that used to be in our back storage room that we just put on the shelf,” Layton says. “And it looks really good, it’s on brand, and it’s stuff that people want.”
Nguyen suggests taking a DIY approach to reopening as a socially-distanced business. She’s done as much of the renovation, marketing, and supply-related tasks in prepping Peche for the public as she can on her own, primarily to cut costs associated with outsourcing labour.
“You have to get your hands dirty,” she says. “In these times, do as many jobs having many hats (as you can) to save on costs.”
Both agree that the challenges COVID-19 has presented small business owners require agility and creativity to overcome. But restaurateurs at a complete loss for ideas about reopening should feel no shame in staying closed until they’re ready, Layton says. It’s too expensive to do otherwise.
“If you’re not confident, then it’s better to stay closed,” he says. “Close the noise out and really watch what everyone else is doing.”
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