Less than a week ago, I was sitting down for dinner at Hearth in Saskatoon. The Juno Awards had just been cancelled and the city was reeling, but people were out in full force and the restaurant was full. As wonderful as the room felt and the plates of tempura-smoked carrots with fermented chickpea hummus and smoked pike with preserved lemon and confit potato tasted, everything was bittersweet.
In the back of my mind, I knew this would be the last sit-down restaurant experience I would be having for quite some time.
Hearth is now one of thousands of restaurants across the country that have closed temporarily in light of the current pandemic. Some have been ordered closed by local or regional governments. Others have made that decision on their own as fears about COVID-19 and emphasis on social distancing pile up.
In Calgary, the city declared a state of emergency last weekend and, as of Monday, restaurants and cafes are only able to operate at half capacity. Several days later, the provincial government limited that to 50 people, or half a business’s operating capacity, whichever is less. Bars and pubs were ordered closed completely.
Calgary’s Alumni Sandwiches halted sit-down service on Monday and moved to take-out and delivery. But by the next day, it had decided to shut down completely, citing efforts to help “flatten the curve.”
“I can survive a temporary closure and I value our role in these early days in removing ourselves over economic activity,” says owner Jeremy Milligan. “Full closure felt right on March 16 and who’s to say where we are at on April 15? My belief is that our full closure contributes to a better April 15.”
Dandy Brewing Company and Tasting Room, a popular brew pub in Calgary’s Inglewood neighbourhood, stopped dine-in service and instead adapted for takeout and delivery, both for its craft beer and a limited food menu. Dandy’s current “ghost kitchen” menu offers dishes such as lentil and roasted garlic soup, a focaccia club, spaghetti bolognese, and its signature hot-chicken sandwich.
Co-owner Benjamin Leon explains that one of the biggest reasons the restaurant hasn’t shut down altogether is because of its small staff.
“They have been with us through the ups and downs and we want to do our best to support them as long as we can. We have infrastructure that is allowing us to transition into a ‘to-go’ model, so we thought we owed it to our staff – and ourselves – to put the effort in.”
By Friday, Mr. Leon said beer orders have been outselling their food and they’ll keep an eye on how things progress over the weekend.
Edmonton restaurants Rostizado and Tres Carnales have also stream-lined operations. Both restaurants are now serving simplified menus of burritos (Rostizado) and tacos, quesadillas and tortillas (Tres Carnales) for takeout or for delivery via mobile apps.
Owner Dani Braun says he has seen a large increase in to-go orders compared to a regular week of business, but it still doesn’t make up for having no formal dining-room service.
“We are employing a core team for as long as we are allowed to by the government. However, if someone feels that they’d rather stay home, we honour that immediately,” Mr. Braun says. “We will soon start giving away food from the restaurants to our staff so that they can feel safe and well-fed at home.”
It’s now a challenge for restaurants to keep their customers up to date about how they’re navigating the pandemic shutdowns and what they’re still offering. The Vancouver-based initiative breakingbreadnow.com launched last week to help.
The campaign is spearheaded by food and beverage public-relations expert Shelley McArthur Everett, owner of SMC Communications. The site lists restaurants and what they offer (takeout, delivery, gift cards) in addition to offering tips for supporting restaurants in other ways, such as writing online reviews and engaging in their social-media streams
Ms. McArthur Everett started the pro-bono initiative a week ago with 23 Vancouver restaurants. Breakingbreadnow currently has more than 150 participants from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and is regularly adding new restaurants.
“I’ve been involved in the hospitality industry in a variety of roles for most of my career and one of the things I love about it is the passion that the hospitality industry carries for their community,” Ms. McArthur Everett says. “Breakingbreadnow is all about keeping that passion alive through a difficult time and showing people how they can help show their support for small and independent restaurants at the time they need it the most.”
In Winnipeg, caterer Ben Kramer saw all of his events either cancelled or postponed for the next several months and decided to do something unique with the extra time on his hands. Spending the first part of this week gathering unused ingredients from local restaurants, he is currently working with Kitchen Sync – a prep kitchen and event space in the Exchange District – and a group of chef volunteers to produce meals for those in need.
Microbreweries and distilleries have also been forced to scale back their operations, closing taprooms and focusing on sales of bottles and cans for people to take home. Some operations, such as Edmonton’s Strathcona Spirits, Victoria Distillers in Sidney, B.C., and Stumbletown Distilling in Saskatoon, have started creating hand sanitizer and providing it to front-line workers, including hospital workers and grocery-store employees, firefighters and police officers. Others have made it available to their customers.
“People are stepping up and pitching in to show their support for the community in this unprecedented time in a variety of ways,” Ms. McArthur Everett says. “It’s so rewarding to see us all rally together for the greater good by supporting local small and independent businesses as well as one another.”
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