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Cindy Simpson, executive VP for Imago Restaurants Inc., says it costs $20,000 to reopen the pub, and with the latest orders to close patios, the pub could lose money on alcohol and food that had been bought in anticipation of reopening.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

As soon as Chris Christodoulou heard on March 19 that he could open the patio of his restaurant, Soulas Modern Greek Cuisine on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue, he got to work. There was cleaning and setting up the tables and chairs; buying inventory, including new beer kegs; and recalling staff who had been laid off.

And there was heating: Toronto’s weather was still a little chilly, so he bought four new patio heaters for $1,000 each. They used to cost $360, he said, but they were sold out everywhere and he was forced to buy them from a reseller who had marked up the price. Each heater ate through a $27 tank of propane in four hours. Over a week, he spent almost $800 on propane alone.

In all, he said, he spent about $10,000 he didn’t really have to open and run his 22-seat patio until it was forced to close on April 2.

“One more opening and lockdown like this, probably half of us are not going to be able to reopen,” Mr. Christodoulou said. “We cannot afford it.”

As Ontario moves into a new phase of lockdown on Thursday – the fourth change in business restrictions in as many weeks – restaurateurs say the shifting public-health orders are costing them money and driving them deeper into the debt hole COVID-19 has dug for them.

Food services and drinking places have been one of the industries hit hardest by public-health restrictions. Indoor dining has been banned in Toronto for 306 days, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. Statistics Canada data show employment in the sector has dropped 27.5 per cent between February, 2020, and February, 2021.

A Statscan survey released in March found just more than half of business owners said they did not know how long they could keep going before closing permanently or declaring bankruptcy, and another quarter said they definitely had less than a year until they ran out of money.

Restaurants Canada estimated this week the total reopening cost to the province’s 15,000 establishments in the past month to be more than $100-million. The lobby group wrote a letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Tuesday, urging him to offer sector-specific support that would cover some of these costs, such as wasted inventory.

Some restaurants have already shut down. Cindy Simpson, executive vice-president of Imago Restaurants, said her company permanently closed three of their seven Toronto pubs because of the pandemic.

One of the remaining ones – the Duke of York near Bloor Street and Avenue Road – reopened its outdoor dining last month as soon as it could. Before COVID-19, the pub could seat 130 people outside, but that was down to 50 with physical distancing.

Ms. Simpson said the Duke of York already had all the equipment it needed to reopen its patio, but it still cost about $20,000 to stock up on alcohol and food, to recall 10 workers and to buy odds and ends such as gas for the beer lines. “I see that as $400 a seat,” she said.

She said the Duke of York had kept takeout and delivery going through the winter lockdown, but that only brought sales up to 7 per cent of what they were prepandemic. With outdoor dining, sales were up to 30 per cent of previous levels.

Ms. Simpson said the company hoped to return to a break-even point between 12 and 18 months from now, with profitability returning sometime after that.

While the Duke of York was well known for its patio, many other restaurants found outdoor dining to be a bigger shift.

Sabena Coulter, the owner of Fanzorelli’s in downtown Brampton, Ont., said her Italian trattoria’s patio was modest before the pandemic hit. The focus had been on the 180 to 250 people the place could pack inside on a Friday or Saturday night, and not the couple of dozen seated outside.

She expanded the patio by six metres last summer to take advantage of outdoor dining, which brought with it new costs such as $1,800 for railings, $600 for a firepit and six new patio umbrellas at $80 each.

Patios were ordered to close late fall, and when Ontario allowed them in her region again in March, she said it took a few days – and another $5,000 – to get the patio ready again, including putting up tents to help shield guests from bad weather.

With the Ontario government closing down outdoor dining less than two weeks later, she said the whipsaw of opening and shutting was damaging to her mental health and that of her employees.

“I’ll be totally honest, I did think it was too early based on the numbers in Peel,” she said, referring to the COVID-19 case counts in Peel Region. “But hey, you say I can go ahead and open, so I do. I jump through hoops, I lay out more money, and then two weeks later you shut me down. I wished you’d never said it in the first place.”

Ms. Coulter was a manager at Fanzorelli’s before buying out the old owner in 2016. She led the business to its best year ever in 2019, when it pulled in nearly $1.1-million in revenue. When the pandemic hit, revenue collapsed. In the nine months starting with February, 2020, she said, the restaurant took in just $200,000, and it’s left her deeply in debt.

Ms. Coulter, who turns 53 later this month, said she bought the restaurant as part of her retirement plan – but she doesn’t know what will happen now.

“It’s supposed to set me up and then set my kids up, for me to pass it on to them,” she said. “And frankly it’s just going down the bloody plughole.”

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