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“Roll with the Punches.” How Local Restaurants Are Making It through the Lockdowns

“Roll with the Punches.” How Local Restaurants Are Making It through the Lockdowns

Posted: 2022-01-21 10:23:44 By: Daniel

There’s been a lot of talk about local businesses this past lockdown, with an emphasis on the imperative to shop local on the side of consumers. The survival of a smaller business during lockdowns is dependent on other factors too, however, and the people behind several local businesses were kind enough to share their insights on what’s really key to their wellbeing during these times.


A Common Theme

Of the challenges local restaurants have faced throughout the yo-yoing of restrictions, the most common theme echoed by owners, including Manny Buttus of That Little Place by the Lights and Ryan Clarke of Main St. Local Kitchen, is that the biggest single issue is staffing. It is the unfortunate reality that as restrictions ease, demand increases and restaurants have to hire more employees, but when the province clamps down with restrictions oftentimes it simply isn’t feasible to keep those employees and the cycle of laying off and rehiring repeats itself.


Adapt or Fail

Some restaurants are better suited to handle the removal of indoor dining, as demonstrated by That Little Place by the Lights and Algonquin Café & Deli. Bill Martin, general manager of Algonquin Café & Deli explained that the restaurant’s business model was already geared more towards takeout, and at That Little Place by the Lights they sell premade meals which customers can take home to heat up and enjoy.


But even with these advantages going into a lockdown, these restaurants are still having to put in their all just to make do. As Main St. Local Kitchen owner Ryan Clarke put it, “COVID has taken our very proactive business model and made it reactive.” For Manny Buttus, he knew right from the start, “we can’t sit here and wait for people to come to us; we have to figure out a way to get to them.” Bill Martin says, “You have to be very efficient in what you do. […] You need to be able to break down your stuff, you need to be able to pull stuff from your freezer as needed, and be able to judge how things are going.” That’s a lesson he’s learned in twenty years as a chef, but it’s truer now more than ever.


Being adaptable is inherent to owning your own business. As harsh as it may sound, you just have to “roll with the punches [or] you might be dead in the water” as Bill says. “COVID’s taught us that if we’re gonna stay in business, we need to be competitive, and be efficient, and diversify.” What this all means for him and the others at the Café & Deli is that they’ve leaned hard into catering. The nature of catering has changed forever due to this pandemic, there are no longer open buffets at 200 people events—a public health nightmare, to be sure—these days it’s more for meetings and small gatherings, with individual items catered to specific people. That’s just how it is, it’s changed. For Manny and the folks at That Little Place, they’ve leaned more into the take-home meals and were at one point delivering meals to homes.


Mind you, all this effort is to survive. Bill made it clear that they aren’t making money hand-over-fist, with all this effort they are still just surviving. Manny says that it isn’t so much a linear scale of doing better or worse, they are simply doing their business differently.


A Word of Advice

Bill shared some other advice for local businesses, but especially the smaller ones that aren’t as well setup for the pandemic in the first place. He says to “totally stand behind” your product, whatever that may be. Put it out there, make it known, and treat it as your baby. Not only will the product speak for itself, but so will your customer service. As Bill puts it, even if your product is a mid-range product that doesn’t stand out as much in its own right, you can make yourself stand out by offering much better customer service. That’s what will get customers to come back.


Not All a Struggle

One thing made clear by the three owners/managers I spoke to was this: they are thankful to be here in Muskoka. In Huntsville, and Muskoka-at-large, the sense of community is stronger than in many other areas of Ontario. Thanks to the support and efforts of people like you, reader, these businesses have been able to make it through the pandemic so far.


With the cooperation of the whole community, whether it’s by spending your money or helping to spread the word, these businesses can stick around so we all have something to look forward to after the pandemic. Continue to shop local, and know that Muskoka is in it together.


 By Daniel Friesen