After many months of suffering, Canada’s bars and restaurants are looking for a boost from the NHL playoffs.
Canada has endured more than two years of pandemic restrictions and witnessed an estimated 13,000 food-service establishments close down, according to Restaurants Canada. Now with the majority of restrictions lifted across the country, groups of hockey fans will be looking to go out and catch games at bars and restaurants.
Three Canadian National Hockey League teams have made the playoffs, which start Monday: the Calgary Flames, the Edmonton Oilers and the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Toronto Raptors basketball team was bounced from the first round of the playoffs on Thursday.
Glenn Juhnke, owner of Edmonton’s Uncle Glenn’s Eatery & Sports Pub for 35 years, says the pandemic has been difficult for his business, but he is anticipating the Oilers faithful will drive a spike in sales this year.
“If Edmonton is in the playoffs, it makes a night-and-day difference with business overnight,” Mr. Juhnke said. “The pandemic has been a test for any business, let alone an independent neighbourhood pub.”
Boston Pizza International Inc., which serves about one million Canadians a week at full capacity, was down about 30 per cent in sales for 2021, after being down about 25 per cent in 2020.
“We always see regional pockets of sales increase when a particular region’s sports team does well or lasts longer in the playoffs,” said Jordan Holm, president of Boston Pizza. “Fans want to come out and watch the games together but group size limits, vaccination mandates and other things were a deterrent.”
Chris Theodossopoulos, who runs Calgary’s Atlas Pizza & Sports Bar, says the establishment ran a deficit in 2021, though playoff hockey cushioned the bottom line.
“On game days, we saw an average of 30 to 50 per cent more volume,” Mr. Theodossopoulos said. “But there’s a lot of Toronto fans out here; Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver fans too. Even when any of those teams aren’t in the playoffs, it boosts business at different times.”
Businesses in Toronto are also looking forward to a boost from the playoffs.
“There’s a cautious optimism with the Leafs where people want a winning team yet we’ve been burned so many times. But at the end of the day, people are rallying,” said Paul Bognar, president and chief operating officer of Service Inspired Restaurants (SIR Corp.), which owns The Loose Moose in Toronto and chains such as Jack Astor’s.
According to Mr. Bognar, game nights see a 15- to 20-per-cent increase in sales. This year, SIR Corp. could be “doing close to $1-million a week in downtown Toronto when these teams are all firing, compared to about $180,000 to $200,000 a week.”
Dan Morrow, senior vice-president of food and beverage at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), says business and tourism are returning to Toronto, and hockey could help sales growth “because of the enthusiasm surrounding the outdoor activity at Maple Leaf Square. We expect full houses in all of our restaurants and Scotiabank Arena.”
Many establishments are preparing for patio season to drive up seating capacity as well.
Mr. Juhnke said he mounted a new TV for the playoffs on Uncle Glenn’s patio, which allows an additional 50 seats on top of the 100 inside. Including decorations, extra staff and Oilers paraphernalia, he estimates spending an extra $4,000 in the first round of playoffs.
“I don’t mind doing that because I’ll make that money back in the first game,” he said.
In a transition from survival to revival, restaurants have other incentives lined up for hockey enthusiasts, including game-day specials, deals with beverage partners, jersey giveaways and ticket contests.
“As long as there are Canadian teams in the NHL playoffs, sports bars in Canada will continue to be busy, whether that’s in downtown Toronto, Calgary or Mississauga,” MLSE’s Mr. Morrow said.
Supply chain disruptions have made inventory forecasting difficult and hampered delivery during the pandemic. Restaurants proved resourceful in mitigating potential food waste and avoiding understocking by designing feature menus, donating to local shelters and food banks, and picking up deliveries themselves from wholesale companies.
The forecast for 2022 is promising, with overall food-service sales in Canada expected to be 3.8 per cent higher than prepandemic levels, according to Restaurants Canada. Full-service restaurants are projected to see a $9.6-billion sales increase in 2022 from an estimated $25.6-billion in 2021.
With COVID-19 still circulating widely, many patrons remain cautious about indoor gatherings.
SIR Corp. and MLSE still require staff to wear masks, although that remains an option for guests because provinces have lifted most mask mandates. Boston Pizza encourages both staff and guests who feel comfortable doing so to continue masking. Some local pubs, such as Uncle Glenn’s, took down their plexiglass dividers while other independent businesses, such as Atlas Pizza, still have them up.
Other health and safety protocols – including regular sanitization of public areas, overnight cleaning and distanced seating where allowed – remain in place at many establishments.
“What I’m really hoping for is the playoffs season brings people out of their shells,” Mr. Theodossopoulos said. “Business, in general, is recovering. A year ago, I would have said, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can do this.’ ... You need to make revenue to be viable.”
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