“Twelve o’clock midnight on a Thursday night, I’m going to open?” Joe Mercurio says. “What am I, a brothel?”
Joe Mercurio, founder and owner of Bar Mercurio, a small but mighty Italian restaurant and bar in midtown Toronto, was offering a perspective on the Ontario government’s sudden decision this week to allow the resumption of communal outdoor drinking and eating on restaurant patios – the first baby step in what the so-called hospitality industry hopes will be the gradual reawakening of pandemic-bound Ontario.
The official reopening time was midnight, as Thursday ticked over into Friday. Many bars, like Hemingway’s, in nearby Yorkville, planned to open until last call at 2 a.m. But the pandemic has refocused Mr. Mercurio’s ambitions. He is not about the hottest, latest, most packed out any more. “Twelve o’clock midnight gets me nothing.”
At the time of his pronouncements, it is 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Mr. Mercurio is sitting on the front porch of his busy house, drinking espresso. His pandemic hairstyle is longer and wilder, and he is sporting a D’Artagnan-style three-leaved mustache and chin beard. The dictum of the reopening has dropped three days earlier than expected and thrown the city’s restaurant and bar owners into a tizzy. Bar Mercurio will open its tiny patio – four, maybe five tables of four – at 11 a.m. Friday, but they’re already booked through the weekend. “Is it better than nothing? Of course. Is it what we aspire to? Of course not.”
The reopening – the food trade’s first swell of optimism in a year – will be anything but a breeze. Profound staff shortages mean even this meek opening can’t happen at full bore. Meanwhile, the restaurant business is seething with fury at what it deems governmental incompetence at every level.
Only a quarter of new restaurants survive longer than a year at the best of times. The pandemic has culled them like a pack of wolves setting on a herd of dying caribou. COVID-19 may have maimed the hospitality industry, but the industry always had a taste for self-destruction.
Ontario’s new “Roadmap to Reopening” is already sowing confusion, even on this, Moment One of Weekend One of Step One of the Great Reopening and Return to Life (Hopefully As We Knew It). The official “Guiding Principles” of Step 1 – which bear a tonal resemblance to a 1950s religious pamphlet on intimate relations between newlyweds – allow restaurants and bars to open their patios to a maximum of four people per table. Unless, that is, it’s a family group, to which they can add one other person, per the old pandemic rules, as long as that person lives alone. Are you already confused? What about five students who live together – do they constitute a family? “There’s very little clarity,” Al Stuart, the managing partner of the Pilot, a bar and restaurant that has thrived on the edge of Yorkville for 75 years, told me the other day. Mr. Stuart decided to impose a limit of four people per table regardless. He still can’t tell, from the government’s guidelines, if there’s a limit on how many tables there can be. According to the rules, Step 1 must prevail for at least three weeks, to suss out any surges in the infection rate. Ditto Steps 2 and 3. That takes you to the end of the summer right there.
Reopening is not cheap: Restaurants Canada, an industry lobby group, estimates the average restart will run $40,000. It’s also time-consuming: The Pilot has 70 beer tap lines running from its keg room to its bars, and merely flushing them takes half a day. But there are also pop lines and coffee makers and ice machines, not to mention contact-tracing logs to create and maintain. “Every one of those things has a different guy who comes in to get them ready, and they’re all being pressured to do everyone at once this week.”
Still, the chance to reopen his large and canopied rooftop patio means salvation for Mr. Stuart: Selling nothing but lockdown takeout over the winter, he was reduced to a gross of $500 a day. His competitors figure he can gross 30 times that amount on a sunny non-pandemic spring day. To survive, he has taken out well over $250,000 in partially forgivable pandemic loans. “We have to make a lot of money this summer to pay them off.”
But preparation problems pale next to staff shortages, which are already limiting even this weekend’s tepid opening. Dean Labreche, the owner of Famoso, an artisanal pizza restaurant around the corner from where I live in Toronto, has been racking his brain and contact list for a week to find four extra employees so he can open his six-table patio.
The other day I spoke to the managing partner of one of the largest high-end restaurant management companies in the country, an industry leader for years. The company recently completed an HR survey of its prepandemic staff, in preparation for reopening. The results were stroke-inducing. Thirty per cent of its managers, 40 per cent of its front-end staff (servers and hosts) and, most critically, 60 per cent of its cooks reported they had either left the (very expensive) city, abandoned the industry or weren’t yet ready to return to work. No one knows if this is permanent or short-term. And this is an industry that was short 60,000 people across Canada before the pandemic.
When I mentioned these findings to Andrew Oliver, the chief executive officer and managing partner of Oliver & Bonacini (the Carlu, Canoe, Jump, Biff’s and other gems of high-end downtown Toronto restaurant life), he wasn’t surprised. Mr. Oliver suspects soaring wage, food and debt costs will make the next six to nine months even more precarious – especially if the federal government curtails wage and rent subsidies just as the restaurant business is getting back to work and needs them most. “Reservations have been extremely encouraging and show that Torontonians are really eager to move on to being normal,” he says of Step 1′s opening days. “If only we didn’t have to wait 41 more days before indoor eating resumes and events can happen.”
Restaurateurs have never been shy about finding someone to blame publicly for their troubles. The pandemic has just presented a larger, unmissable target, in the form of all levels of government.
Josh Corea, the owner of Toronto wine bar Archive – his 28-seat boîte was doing half a million dollars in sales before the pandemic – is grateful to have the new patio business. “This makes us a business again,” he says. But he blames Doug Ford for making lockdown more damaging than it needed to be. “They kept reverting to ideology when you just need to do what works.”
Andrew Oliver, on the other hand, lays more blame on Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals. “I was surprised by how much they made decisions based on what would get them re-elected,” he told me over the telephone the other day. He was surprised there was specific help for the airline industry – a national concern – but none for restaurants, which employ more people but whose political base is fractured and local. He was likewise surprised Toronto Mayor John Tory never cut restaurant property taxes. Mr. Oliver runs one of the largest and most successful restaurant groups in the country, but his sales fell 80 per cent into the trench of the pandemic. “Toronto specifically has been the most locked-down place in the world,” he maintains, brandishing a metric a lot of industry lobbyists have been wielding lately. “Nowhere in the world were restaurants as suffocated and punished as in Toronto.” And Canada is “literally the last place in the whole entire world” to open, Mr. Oliver declares – a sweeping generalization even by the robust standards of sweeping generalizations.
This fury is common among restaurant owners, who have borne the brunt of various forms of lockdown for more than 400 days. How could they not be wild-eyed with trauma? One of them said to me over the phone from another city that he wouldn’t be surprised if Canada’s approach to the pandemic – the amount of pain and suffering the lockdowns have caused – turned out to be worse than the deaths caused by the virus, a point he then reinforced by pointing out that 80 per cent of the 26,000 people who have died so far in Canada from COVID-19 were older than 70 anyway. And yet moments later he was exhorting the special quality of breaking bread with other humans that couldn’t be replicated online. I put it down to stress.
The good news is that people want to eat out again. Janet Zuccarini, CEO of Gusto 54 Restaurant Group (nine restaurants in Toronto, three in California), was in Los Angeles last week, perusing a daily wait list of 300 people trying to get into Felix, her latest triumph there, which currently boasts a full patio and 50-per-cent capacity indoors. “The U.S. is in a different position because of vaccine availability, so they’re living in the future,” she said over the phone – the future being one big thing the pandemic stole from all of us. “Restaurants are almost completely booked down here. So we know it’s going to happen in Toronto soon. To see lineups at restaurants! You can’t believe it.”
The pandemic changed all of us, moved us all inside, not just physically, but psychologically and emotionally. It was the largest experiment in forced introversion in the history of civilization. It changed who we were and what we valued and how we spent (or didn’t). Will it change the way we drink and eat? Ms. Zuccarini’s restaurants served $36-million worth of food a year before the pandemic hit, a return of somewhere between 14 and sometimes 17 per cent (which she figures is the limit). The prepandemic industry average was 4 per cent. “I’ve been complaining that the government hasn’t been smart,” Ms. Zuccarini says. “But the restaurant industry hasn’t been smart either.”
Despite lineups at her restaurants, Ms. Zuccarini thinks certain pandemic habits – entertaining at home, buying prepared meals – are here to stay. Her restaurants are now creating lasagnas and sauces for that purpose, as is Joe Mercurio.
Mr. Mercurio wants to resist the rush back to the frantic way things were, until reopening has settled out. “There isn’t going to be a victory band announcing the reopening,” he says, reaching for his espresso. What the pandemic has most seriously undermined, he believes, is our trust in the communities we belong to, trust he hopes to build back in the form of a restaurant – ”a club you can belong to for not much money,” as Al Stuart describes the Pilot. That’s the thing about a bar or a restaurant you come to treasure: No matter what food critics natter on about, it isn’t the bread you break that matters most. It’s the breaking.
Joe Mercurio plans to stay at half-capacity until he can run properly at full, and hopes in the meantime to make half-capacity a virtue of its own – a slower speed people will groove to. It’s an interesting, possibly doomed notion. He’s going to run a live turntable on the bar and play nondigital music, and sell the sourdough pizzas and hand-smoked prosciuttos and salamis he perfected during the pandemic to his customers, either to take home or to eat at his restaurant, located on the edge of the University of Toronto, with his clientele of writers and professors and publishers and students and people who like to talk. “For me to return to capacity, we’d need the labour force to be back. We’d need the students to be back, for the university to start up again. We need to start shaking hands. Because if you can’t shake hands, how can you serve food?”
It was a nice metaphor, but I wondered if it mattered any more. I mentioned an acquaintance in Washington, where most people were double-vaxxed weeks ago and where restaurant life is already back to boiling, overspending, so-called normal. Where it is “as if the pandemic never happened,” as my acquaintance put it.
“That’s so sad,” Joe said. “Because it means we have no memory, that we’ve learned nothing. Which means it can happen again.”
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