Ottawa chef Marc Lepine sells pre-reservation tickets online for his six-seat, 20-by-10-foot restaurant, Thru, a month in advance. Last summer, they sold out in 78 seconds – for the whole month.
“It was crazy,” he says, “but within the first 24 hours all the tickets for the month are always gone.”
Thru (T for tablemat) is one of a handful of micro-restaurant concepts that have opened across Canada over the past few years.
With rents in major cities skyrocketing and growing concern for issues around fair wages, food costs and – now with coronavirus – crowding, chefs across the country are pivoting to grow their brands by shrinking their spaces.
“People come in and say we could put another table in there, but it’s such a complicated thing to pull off that six is just the right number for it,” says Mr. Lepine, who serves a 50-item menu at Thru, including bites and drinks, at $350 for two people. “And it’s always full.”
According to Restaurants Canada, 80 per cent of restaurants typically close within the first five years of operation.
But a smaller space can soften the blow of a full closure. Lee Lacombe, a sales representative for Colliers International Inc. in Ottawa, who focuses on retail and the restaurant industry, says the size of spaces restaurateurs are looking for has decreased in the last decade.
The combination of rising rents and chefs wishing to tap into foodie culture – by providing diners an intimate, creative experience – has inspired the change, he says. A smaller seat-count would be beneficial compared to trying to welcome in hundreds of diners every night.
“If you have a chef and a good owner who have great social media presence, it really doesn’t matter where your restaurant is,” says Mr. Lacombe. “Toronto real estate is so expensive and it helps build up that ‘oh it’s sold out, we have to get in there.’ It goes hand in hand.
“You can employ fewer servers, don’t have to pay as much rent and have a sold-out spot more often than not, so I think it’s a trend that will definitely continue.”
Matt Cowan, the chef and owner of The Heather in Hamilton, has run his 500-square-foot restaurant for nearly four years. But last year he cut the number of seats in half from 12 to six.
“Taking a micro-restaurant and making it even more micro was terrifying,” he says.
Mr. Cowan and his wife, Meg, previously lived above the restaurant but have since moved back to Toronto. Meg was working as a server when there were 12 seats, but since they cut it the seating in half, Mr. Cowan has taken on all the responsibilities of chef, server, bartender and dishwasher.
But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“In larger locations you’re not as hands-on as you’d like to be with the food so that was a big part of [choosing a smaller space]. I wanted to get back to honing my craft, and customer connection was important to me,” he says. “In bigger restaurants you can say hi to guests, but it’s not like you’re there with them through the entire meal and sharing the experience together.”
Managing a micro-restaurant has also become more straightforward, according to David Hopkins, the president of The Fifteen Group, a consultancy firm in Toronto that specializes in hospitality.
The Heather, for example, is only open four nights a week but will charge $170 per person (with a wine pairing, or $105 with no wine). Despite knocking its headcount in half for 2019, Mr. Cowan says he broke even the year before.
Mr. Hopkins says small-space restaurants are catering to those who don’t care about paying upwards of $200 per person for a meal. The concepts are targeted to the masses, he says, but that’s why the places that are charging that much per diner have so few seats to begin with.
Besides trying to aim for a higher-spending customer, Mr. Hopkins says ballooning rents are a key factor in the desire for a reduced footprint.
After taxes, maintenance, and insurance it could be upwards of $125 per square foot in a prime area, he says. If chefs can reduce their restaurants’ footprints by 2,000 square feet in by going micro, that’s a savings of $250,000 in expenses.
“As rent increases, it puts a lot of pressure on an industry where you already have such tight margins to begin with,” says Mr. Hopkins.
In Edmonton, Ben Staley just opened his new venture, Yarrow (named after a wild herb indigenous to the area), in January.
Although it’s approximately 3,000 square feet – nearly six times as big as The Heather but with only four more seats – Mr. Staley says part of his menu’s concept is to have the guests move around to different places.
He believes that, although smaller places will only work for “a handful” of restaurant concepts, more micro-restaurants will open up in the future – assuming the industry navigates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Restaurants Canada estimates that 800,000 food-service jobs have already been lost nationwide due to COVID-19.
“In our 75 years of existence as Canada’s national food-service association, these are by far the worst numbers we have ever seen,” said Shanna Munro, Restaurants Canada President and CEO.
Still, Mr. Staley says, cooks are well traveled more than ever now and keen to return home armed with the knowledge they’ve acquired from working in kitchens abroad. Since there aren’t many people investing these days, he says, chefs – like Mr. Cowan – are financing restaurants themselves.
“We’ll see more chefs doing cool things with small spaces,” Mr. Staley says, “because it will be all a chef can afford to do.”