For Jessica Davis-Sydor, working at Beach Burger on the Main Street of Sauble Beach, Ont., is a summer tradition. Her family has a cottage near the popular destination on Lake Huron, a couple hours’ drive outside the Greater Toronto Area, where she lives during the school year. The 18-year-old has been working behind the counter for the past four years, but last summer she was anxious about going back to work after the pandemic lockdown.
“I was excited about seeing people, but I was also nervous because we were still in the first stages; we didn’t know everything we know now,” she says. “How was I going to give people the experience they want and keep myself safe?”
Just down the street at Chip & Patty and Rustic Pizza Co., Anita Borges was getting ready to work her first pandemic summer along with Ms. Davis-Sydor. All three restaurants are jointly owned by the same family who have been serving fast food in the area for over 16 years. “I wasn’t nervous about going back to work. But I was curious about the different changes that would occur,” the 27-year-old says.
Before the start of the busy summer season (annually, about 2.5 million people visit the Bruce County area where Sauble Beach is located), the owners held a staff meeting to help employees get in sync with health and safety precautions, including working behind plexiglass, wearing masks and increased sanitization measures.
This summer, Ms. Davis-Sydor is working at Beach Burger as a first-time manager, and she feels more secure about being behind the counter. “I feel a lot better since the vaccines came out. I’m double vaccinated, I still wear masks and use sanitizer, and I feel like we know so much more about [COVID-19] and are prepared for this coming year.”
Despite viral Tik Toks broadcasting bad customer behaviour at fast-food joints, both employees say people have been understanding of the pandemic-related safety requirements, from wearing a mask indoors and patiently waiting outside while their food is made to order to respect physical distancing requirements.
For 17-year-old Holly Theobald, who started working at Beach Burger this summer, the owners arrive within minutes when she texts them asking for support. “They come in and check in on us a lot. We’re all teenagers and when there’s a big issue with a customer, they are always there to step in,” she explains, adding that there are plenty of breaks from the added stress of working under not-so-normal circumstances.
Paramount Fine Foods CEO and founder, Mohamad Fakih, confirms this personal touch is necessary for restaurants, big or small. “Having open lines of communication is essential and one to ones with managers and staff,” he says. “Getting to know team members on a personal level assists in coming up with unique solutions to balance work and personal life. I always say that our people are always a CEO’s first priority — as they are what propels the success of a business, so the team must be taken care of in every way possible.”
Also a board member of Restaurants Canada, a non-profit industry association, Mr. Fakih adds that customers should accommodate fast food workers during this time too. “Don’t make the employees police behaviour. They didn’t volunteer to do that, but unfortunately it has become part of their job. It slows down what they really want to do — serve you and ensure you have a great dining experience,” he explains.
Physical distancing requirements, and sanitization at every touch point, also adds to the waiting time to prepare your poutine, burger, pizza or hot dog, especially when a business relies on quality and unique ingredients — over quantity — to succeed.
For instance, at Beach Burger, one of their best sellers requires a freshly grilled slice of pineapple and peameal bacon, and at Chip & Patty, a popular poutine includes a Thanksgiving feast with all the fixings — house roasted turkey, cranberry mayo and stuffing.
“We have a limit to how many people can be inside and taking orders takes longer; we have to fully finish with one customer before the next customer can order,” explains Ms. Borges, who has been employed by the family of restaurants for six years. “You just have to have a lot of patience. We’re really working hard and trying our best to get your food out as soon as possible and as fast as we can, and still have the same quality.”
Recently promoted to a managerial role, she adds that communicating through plexiglass and masks affects the overall experience on both sides of the counter. “Not being able to read people’s lips or see their faces was definitely an adjustment. When the equipment is on and there so much background noise and I don’t have lips to read, things can get muddled.” Her suggestion? Feel free to yell.
Despite pandemic hurdles, the future looks bright for businesses that have seized the opportunity to pivot. In Sauble Beach, the launch of online orders and curbside pick-up has increased revenue for the trio of restaurants.
In Vancouver, Japadog, which serves hot dogs with Japanese toppings such as teriyaki sauce, seaweed and bonito flakes, has witnessed a boon too.
Miyako Namekawa, has been serving the much-loved menu with a twist for three years. “We did have a hard time under the pandemic like other restaurants did. However, …it turned out that this pandemic became a big opportunity for us to grow,” the 29-year-old says. So much so, over the next few months, Japadog is opening two new locations plus a food truck concept with an expanded menu including ramen, rice bowls and Japanese-style tacos.
Even with COVID-19 challenges, Ms. Namekawa says she’s fortunate to be working in the fast-food industry and stays motivated thanks to caring customers. “The pandemic gave us a hard time. We wracked our brains to survive. Even under such a difficult time, we were lucky enough to have loyal customers who were always supportive and cheerful,” she says. “When a lot of restaurants were closed, and we were one of a few restaurants opened on the street, some customers kept visiting us every day to help our business with cheerful words.”