“Do you have regular coffee?” Mary-Anne Crevier asked her server, pulling a cardigan tighter to ward off the shivers as she polished off a jerk-chicken breakfast wrap.
This was Sunday morning at the Keefer Yard. Opened in early August, the former empty lot beside Chinatown’s award-winning Keefer Bar has been transformed into one of Vancouver’s grooviest pop-up patios, replete with vibrant graffiti murals, rotating food trucks and a nine-hole putting green that raises funds for charity.
“I’m sorry, we do not,” Joe Cassock replied, enunciating slowly behind his mask. “We’re a cold and colder bar.”
He was drolly referring to the cocktails, which include freshly squeezed orange-juice mimosas and espresso martini slushies for the new weekend brunch service catered by Calabash Bistro. Ever industrious, the Keefer made a quick pivot last week and began opening up earlier to help recoup lost revenues now that a provincial health order requires bars and restaurants to stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m.
But as a chilly breeze rolled through the yard under slate skies socked in by wildfire smoke, Mr. Cassock’s cheery quip was loaded with gloomy portent.
Winter is coming and an extension of the Temporary Expedited Patio Program, helpful though it might be, is quite literally cold comfort to a shell-shocked hospitality industry that continues to grapple with fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
No matter how successful they were during the summer, patios are not a feasible winter option for many establishments. This includes the Keefer Bar, which will be closing its hipster mini-golf green when the weather turns.
“I can’t stick my staff outside in the rain,” says general manager Keenan Hood, noting that outdoor sales for August brought the business back to its usual pre-COVID revenues.
(The new closing hours, he adds, will knock sales back about 30 per cent, forcing it to again seek rent- and wage-subsidy government assistance to the tune of approximately $30,000 a month.)
Still, he says, winterizing the Keefer Yard isn’t worth the risk. “If anyone gets sick, even with just a scratchy throat, they’ll have to take a COVID test and maybe self-isolate. If I lose a few staff, I won’t be able to run my indoor operations and will have to close completely.”
On Wednesday night, Vancouver City Council unanimously endorsed a motion to extend the TEPP, which allows restaurants and bars to set up temporary patios on sidewalks and streets to offset indoor capacity restrictions. It was meant to end Oct. 31.
The cities of Delta and North Vancouver also voted to extend their patio programs this week.
Although the motions still require provincial approval and more details from the cities’ respective engineering departments, restaurants and bars will be allowed to erect rain shelters over their temporary patios and install outdoor heaters – provided they can find them.
The demand for propane and electric heaters (which are now also allowed by the City of Toronto on all outdoor patios) is so high, home-improvement stores and online retailers across the country are struggling to keep them in stock, the Retail Council of Canada reports.
Cost is another prohibitive factor. In North Vancouver, Brigitte Raye, the owner of Orto Artisan Pasta, is thinking about putting a tent over her expansive garden. It’s a permanent patio so she doesn’t need municipal approval and has already purchased three heaters. But a tent will cost $30,000 to $40,000.
“I’m not sure if it’s worth it for five tables,” she says.
Although wildly successful in Vancouver, where 361 temporary patios were approved and provided a summer lifeline for many, the concept did not take off everywhere and was predicated on an ethnocentric bias that excluded many types of restaurants.
In Richmond, where Chinese restaurants are predominant, only 11 temporary outdoor dining spaces got off the ground.
“Chinese people don’t like to eat on patios,” says David Chung, president of the BC Asian Restaurant Café Owners Association. “It’s not their habit or part of the culture.”
Even the restaurants that had a huge surge thanks to their outdoor operations have now noticed that interest has begun to wane.
“We’re not hanging our hats on the possibility of parlaying our B-Side beach vibes into some sort of après ski,” says Andrew Jameson, co-owner of Fraserhood’s Say Mercy!, which did nearly three-quarters of its summer business from an outdoor sandwich shop and wine bar that abutted a public plaza (for which they took stewardship) on a closed, tree-shaded section of East 27th Avenue.
“I could see that happening in Whistler, but is there really a market in Vancouver when the cold, damp weather moves in?” he says, noting that they might try offering outdoor fondues, but are more focused on “embracing the uncertainty” with a new food truck purchased in August.
In Gastown, L’Abattoir chef-owner Lee Cooper is still on the fence.
“I wasn’t convinced that it would fly,” he says of the fine-dining restaurant’s small pop-up patio in Maple Tree Square, which has been hopping and jiving with local musicians all summer.
"It was a great success, but I’m not sure if winterizing the outdoor seating is in the cards for us. I’m not sure if it’s right for what we do. It’s not cheap to dine here at this point and I’m not convinced that it’s the right fit for our guests.
“But I was totally wrong before and happy to be wrong. We’ll see.”
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