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


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