As restaurants and bars across Alberta are allowed to resume in-person meals next week, there are mixed feelings among operators nearly a year after the COVID-19 pandemic threw the industry into crisis.
The provincial government closed in-person dining in December in the face of skyrocketing infections and hospitalizations. Those businesses, which were closed last spring and faced significant constraints for the rest of the year, will be permitted to open Monday as part of what the province describes as a cautious plan that will retain strict limits on physical distancing and other measures.
A handful of places, such as Bonnyville, Red Deer and Okotoks, bucked the rules and reopened, as a form of protest, earlier in January against provincial guidelines. Then there are others breathing a sigh of relief, eager to serve patrons come Monday. On the other end of the spectrum, there are many business owners, such as Calgary’s Lam Pham, who are not looking to resume table service just yet.
Mr. Pham runs Pure Modern Asian Kitchen & Bar on 8th Avenue SW in downtown Calgary. Unlike many restaurants, his eatery never resumed in-person dining after the first lockdown lifted last spring. He cites the health of his parents, who work in the restaurant alongside him, as well as trying to limit the spread of COVID-19 as two major factors for this choice.
“I feel like it’s part of our responsibility to help lower the spread wherever we can. As safe as we can be – while running a restaurant with proper health and safety protocols – I think we all know that it only takes one infected person to affect many others,” the chef says.
Mr. Pham has been busy with takeout orders since last spring, but acknowledges his location in downtown Calgary plays a factor in choosing not to reopen for dine-in service. The area continues to be in a ghost-town-like state.
“Before the pandemic, our lunch rush was a huge part of our sales. Now lunch sales are minimal, but dinner has picked up in terms of takeout sales. Offices are cleared out and even once restaurants and bars can reopen, most offices still won’t have workers in them.”
Mr. Pham says customers have pressed him to reopen, but it’s something he isn’t comfortable with. Given the roller coaster that was the first and second lockdowns, a third would be beyond frustrating for most.
Mr. Pham, who has Vietnamese roots, has watched how extensive lockdowns have benefited countries such as Vietnam, New Zealand and Australia.
“Maybe it’s because of my background, but I’ve seen how strictly Vietnam has handled the pandemic since Day 1. People there get to have their normal lives back very soon. I really miss a good, normal life,” he says.
Canmore’s Tracy Little is the chef and owner of Tapas Restaurant. She will be resuming sit-down dining next week, but largely out of necessity.
“As we are a newer restaurant, we are not eligible for most of the government relief grants available,” she said. “We need to be open to be able to stay in business. Our type of dining experience is harder to market in takeout boxes, let alone retain the quality from restaurant to home – so it is imperative that we can entertain guests in-house.”
Tapas serves elevated Spanish-inspired cuisine and Ms. Little is known well for her inventive approach to tasting menus. The latter is not something best presented via delivery apps.
“It is an uncomfortable truth that we had to stay closed for longer than other businesses. However, I am appreciative that there are new guidelines for a timeframe of restrictions now, where they were severely lacking before,” she says. “It [still feels] impossible for us to plan for the future; where we would normally take bookings for small weddings, parties, etc. … we now have to create tentative lists depending on the restrictions of the times.”
In order to keep the business going during lockdowns, Ms. Little says they found success collaborating with other businesses in Canmore for takeout packages as well as sharing food-supply orders with other smaller establishments to meet minimum-order costs. While these efforts have kept the restaurant alive, packaged food is definitely not what Tapas is meant to be serving.
While the chef is excited to be able to host customers in her restaurant, her main concern – and this a worry for most – is how to enforce the restriction of household-only dining groups.
“I understand that restaurants are a place where people typically meet with others outside of their households, and even with the restriction that you should only be attending restaurants and bars with those they live with, this is a hard factor for us to control,” Ms. Little says. “Beyond checking driver’s licences or asking guests for a piece of mail, it really is an honour system that we are working with.”
In Edmonton, RGE RD co-owner Caitlin Fulton and her partner Blair Lebsack are tentatively planning to resume sit-down dining in early March.
Aside from being wary about opening, they also have commitments this month, such as three virtual Valentine’s Day events, that make it impossible to open sooner. As well, RGE RD’s in-house dining requires extensive prep work, more than a handful of days, Ms. Fulton says.
“It takes us weeks, not days, to prepare [to reopen] as we have to restock our pantry. All vinegars, pickles and other accoutrements have been depleted over the past couple of months and are housemade and time consuming.”
The couple also recently opened The Butchery, a contemporary butcher shop that further complements the farm and field-to-plate mantra at RGE RD. They have found much success with dinner kits and other prepared foods via both concepts, but nothing is a perfect substitute for a sit-down dinner experience.
“We are hopeful that the infection rates remain manageable and that we can safely open come March. Dine-in is the only way we can achieve any balance as a business, but the No. 1 priority is the greater safety of our community,” Ms. Fulton says.
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