Since March 2020, 10,000 restaurants have already closed across Canada. With continued shutdowns as the pandemic continues, that number is sure to rise. For those that remain open, every day remains a struggle. “We’re bleeding money every day,” says Brenda O’Reilly, who owns and operates four food and beverage establishments in St. John’s, Nfld., including O’Reilly’s Irish Pub and YellowBelly Brewery. She’s had to temporarily shutter one while the remaining three are dramatically down in sales. “This is my legacy,” she says. “I’m all in. My husband and I have everything to lose here.”
Matthew Senecal-Junkeer can relate. Together with his wife, he owns The Birds & The Beets, a small bakery café in the trendy Vancouver district of Gastown. “We’re in an area usually packed with tourists and office workers. Suddenly, there was no one. It felt apocalyptical,” he recalls of the March shutdown. Since May, they’ve reopened under strict COVID-19 protocols, but sales are down by half. “We’re buying less food and we went from 40 to three employees. But our fixed expenses like rent and insurance don’t change, and they’re killer. Rent has become more than our profit margin.”
In the Toronto area, the culinary scene is even more dire. With Ontario’s high COVID-19 caseload, restaurants have been closed for table service since early October. “Sales have gone from 100 to 15 or 20 per cent,” says Donna Dooher, owner and chef at Mildred’s Temple Kitchen. “It’s just not sustainable. We operate on high volume and special events. All of those events were cancelled in 2020 and now they’re being pushed to 2022, which is pretty devastating for our business.”
With reduced capacity, restaurants cannot bring in the level of sales needed to carry on. For all three business owners, they would not have survived without the government’s wage and rent subsidies. But it’s not enough. That’s why Restaurants Canada, the not-for-profit foodservice association representing more than 30,000 members across the country, launched the “Picture life without restaurants” campaign calling on consumers to support their local restaurants through dine-in (where available), takeout, delivery or by purchasing gift cards.
To be sure, as always in the business of serving food, health and safety remain top priority. Restaurants across Canada have invested more than $750-million in new procedures and equipment to keep their staff and customers safe. “We’ve had to spend money for PPE, renovate to provide distancing barriers, and complete work to accommodate all the protocols,” says O’Reilly. “It’s been really challenging and stressful, but our main focus is protecting our staff and community and, in effect, that protects our business. Safety first.”
Our sector is the heartbeat of communities. We are there when people need us. I can’t even quantify how much I’ve given to causes over the years, and I love doing it. But we are not big businesses, and now, we need help from our communities.— Brenda O’Reilly, Owner and operator of four food and beverage establishments in St. John’s, Nfld., including O’Reilly’s Irish Pub and YellowBelly Brewery
Thankfully, because of the ingenuity and resilience of so many restaurateurs, they’ve been able to adapt to ever-changing public health protocols. Some, like Senecal-Junkeer and Dooher, have come up with new revenue streams through the sale of pantry items. Most have pivoted to include takeout and curbside pickup. A simple way to help local restaurants is by ordering and picking up directly. “Third-party delivery apps take a big cut, so your dollars will go that much further to helping restaurants if you order and pick up yourself,” says Senecal-Junkeer.
“Consumers have been sympathetic,” he adds. “But we need that continued support now and when things go back to ‘normal.’ Restaurants can’t just drop off the radar. We need to allow businesses a real viable chance to survive; recognizing the road to revival is long.” Many business owners have borrowed money to stay afloat and will need time and assistance to recover from these unexpected debts. Without continued consumer and government support, more restaurants will close, leaving gaping holes in the economy and the lives of Canadians.
Many are discovering how much they depend on restaurants as an essential service for food, but also that the restaurant experience itself is vital. “I hear repeatedly from our guests, ‘I’ve learned that I can live without a lot during the pandemic, but I can’t live without restaurants,’” says Dooher. “It’s not just having someone to cook, serve and clean up; it’s the laughter, the gathering, the energy, the connectivity we miss. Restaurants play a very important role, not just in our economic recovery but also our emotional recovery, and this should not be overlooked.”
O’Reilly agrees. “Our sector is the heartbeat of communities. We are there when people need us. I can’t even quantify how much I’ve given to causes over the years, and I love doing it. But we are not big businesses, and now, we need help from our communities.”
Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications with Restaurants Canada. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.