Devastating for some, positive for others – COVID’s effect on local restaurants
The food and beverage industry has been taking hits left, right and centre since the pandemic hit Canada in early 2020.
Terms such as devastating and disastrous are not lightly used to describe the effects on many businesses throughout the nation.
Indeed, hundreds of establishments have been forced to close their doors, while others still have needed to greatly reduce staff while continually switching up operations to save themselves.
Muskoka businesses – particularly in the food and beverage arena – have not been immune to the economic effects of COVID-19. A few have shut their doors permanently, while others are scraping by in the hopes of a recovery once a vaccine causes a return to at least a semblance of normality in 2021.
Hunters Bay Radio contacted a few local restaurants to get their take on the situation and what they did – or are continuing to do – to make it through. While not everyone responded, the results were varied among those who did.
The Algonquin Café adapted their offerings and found a formula that took a negative situation and turned it into a positive. With a business already geared towards takeout, which became the prevailing service trend due to COVID restrictions on restaurants, their menu and business model was in good shape.
“It’s been good for our business, because it let’s the little guys like us compete with the big guys who have huge restaurants – it puts everyone on the same playing field,” says Bill Martin of the Algonquin Café. “During COVID, you have to learn how to diversify. A lot of people have their niches, which is great in a perfect world. But, in this situation, you have to diversify.”
One of the ways they diversified was to add a second location in the form of a food truck, which was situated in a parking lot across from Blackburn’s Landing. The food truck was the brainchild of owner Walter Grys.
“The food truck was going to be our ice cream shack, which was out back,” says Martin, referring to their Main Street West main restaurant. “But then COVID hit and Walter made a really smart business decision to turn it into a food truck downtown. It was a matter of taking what you have to maximize your potential.”
However, others haven’t been so lucky while navigating the pandemic. This includes delays in opening their Bracebridge Brew Pub.
Kevin Schmidtke, CCC, the Director of Restaurants, Retail and New Projects for Lake of Bays Brewing Company says the overall effect of COVID – particularly the lockdowns and restrictions – has had a “devastating” effect on their business.
He explains that during the first lockdown in March 2020, business at their downtown Huntsville Brewhouse was non-existent as consumers were clueless about what was open and where they could shop. Schmidtke says it was about a month in before a decent number of takeout orders were placed.
“Even as this slowly built over time it didn’t come close to paying the bills,” he notes. “It was very hard on the staff still in the restaurant as there were long times in between orders. For people who are used to being busy and interacting with people it was especially hard on them mentally.”
Much like their fellow food and beverage establishments, Lake of Bays Brewing Company re-opened to in-person dining when they were able to, however with several changes they were required to make.
From removing half their tables to sanitizing after each customer visit, plus contact tracing sign-ins for every guest and extra regulations regarding masks and movement in the business, their staff and their clients had much to adapt to.
Changes apart from following protocols Lake of Bays implemented included moving to an online platform to order from one’s phone; moved to using a QSR code for contactless menus, as well as throw-away paper copies for those who prefer them; and a reduction in capital expenditures until positive cash flow returns.
“Going to the red zone, which meant ten seats in the restaurant and no more than four to a table reduced business to a trickle and we could see the writing on the wall that another lockdown was imminent,” says Schmidtke of the health unit zoning and colour coding implemented in the fall of 2020.
As well, their catering business was almost zero, plus all their Christmas party bookings cancelled. Schmidtke believes Muskoka should not have been lumped in with Simcoe for COVID zoning and more hard data was needed before forcing certain restrictions on restaurants throughout the pandemic.
“Well, the lockdown is here (again), and we have laid almost everyone off for seven days. Most will return for a few hours each week and collect unemployment … All our business is now takeout. Being as we are a destination location; we are generally not the first place that comes to mind when you think of takeout. So, this is especially painful.”
Ryan and Christina Clarke from Main St. Local Kitchen say they aren’t alone in the food and beverage industry when dealing with the effects of the pandemic on their business.
“Like many of our peers, Covid has certainly impacted our business’s bottom line,” says Ryan. “It has disrupted our brick-and-mortar business at the restaurant as we have had to problem solve and respond quickly to the ever-changing circumstances and protocols. But we are really fortunate to have a great team and local support in our online and curbside offerings.”
Christina notes they have adapted the way they do business by focusing on, and investing in, technology to grow their takeout and catering through the online ordering platform.
“We’ve cooked up lots of new online food and beverage offers,” she notes. “When our dining room and/or patio has been open, we’ve implemented protocol and additional measures that have helped our customers and staff feel safe to dine in.”
The Clarkes say they recognize that all levels of government have been placed in a tough position but would always like to see more transparency and a better flow of information: “as business owners we just want to be in the know so we can adapt.”
In the end, like their fellow food and beverage operators, the team at Main St. Local Kitchen is doing their best to stay informed and roll with the punches, while maintaining an open dialogue with their Health and Safety representative.
“We have never lived through a pandemic of this magnitude, so it’s hard to form objective opinions,” says Ryan. “There have been moments where we wished there was a crystal ball, or perhaps had a longer lead time to make changes ... The way we are handling things is to stay on top of the news and current information as best we can.”
And that may be the only thing anyone, in any industry can do right now: the best they can. Meanwhile, the community can continue supporting local restaurants by enjoying their takeout menu options.
By Chris Occhiuzzi, for HuntersBayRadio.com