Restaurateurs strive to find normalcy as dining rooms open to patrons
With all the business closures that took place in late March in response to COVID-19, the shuttering of restaurant dining rooms has perhaps garnered the most attention.
The restaurant business is infamously precarious at the best of times and Calgary’s thousands of eateries make up a significant chunk of the city’s small business community. According to a survey conducted by Restaurants Canada in late March, as many as 95,000 food service jobs were lost in Alberta in the early days of the pandemic, and Calgary has already seen some permanent pandemicrelated closures.
As many restaurateurs figured out new ways to do takeout throughout April and May, quite a few managed not only to survive, but also to rehire staff as dining rooms remained closed. This helped them hang on until they were able to reopen for dine-in service at 50 per cent capacity on May 25 in Phase 1 of Alberta’s economic relaunch.
When Phase 2 rules came into effect June 12, restrictions were further eased, allowing for full capacity, provided customers could be seated two metres apart.
Opening safely has meant much more than simply putting masks on servers and welcoming customers inside. Keeping that two-metre distance between guests has resulted in careful measuring and rearranging of tables, and protocols such as mandatory hand sanitizing, Plexiglas dividers and digital menus guests can access from their phones. Most restaurants are finding that customers appreciate the effort they’re putting in to adhere to provincial guidelines, even as those rules quickly change.
“You have to have your game on all the time to monitor what’s going on and to be fully aware of what the guidelines are,” says Sal Howell, proprietor of the River Cafe and Deane House restaurants. “It’s about trust. You want to instil confidence and trust within the dining public so they know you’re doing everything that you are capable of to provide a safe environment.”
Even as things seem (mostly) normal in Howell’s restaurants and most of her staff were keen to return to work, there are many behind-the-scenes challenges. Her team was able to strategically place tables without drastically disturbing the look of either restaurant, but neither place has the space to run anywhere close to full capacity. Howell’s operations have to deal with the added complication of acting as wedding venues, which has required some creative social distancing techniques, boosting Wi-fi bandwidth to accommodate guests attending virtually, as well as a lot of rescheduling into 2021.
Like River Cafe and Deane House, Mikey’s on 12th — home to a live music venue with a full menu and the increasingly popular Taco Shop food counter — has reopened slowly and cautiously.
Co-owners Mike Clark and Alli Said say that while they’ve seen a lot of new faces come in to try the tacos, many regulars have been slower to return, often because they tend to be older and are warier of COVID-19. Clark says that as people get more used to the rules, his bottom line is gradually improving.
“Hopefully we’ll get some semblance of normalcy happening,” Clark says. “People are starting to see that restaurants are really working hard at cleaning and adhering to the protocols. Eventually, they’ll get more comfortable in coming out.”
Both restaurateurs are clear they would not be able to survive under current conditions without government assistance and they’re unsure what will happen once those programs end.
Like many other restaurants, they’re boosting their revenue with new tactics: Mikey’s is opening a new Taco Shop takeout outpost in the northwest in early July and Howell has launched an a la carte picnic service at River Cafe and is continuing the heat-athome takeout program at Deane House.
“Right now we’re on a sprint — July and August are when our business is most in demand,” Howell says. “After that, it’s going to be an interesting transition, but right now we’re focused on the summer.”
You have to have your game on all the time ... It’s about trust. You want to instil confidence and trust within the dining public so they know you’re doing everything that you are capable of to provide a safe environment.
Sal Howell, below, proprietor, Deane House