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COVID-19 Pandemic: A Report from the Frontlines

As a food journalist and former restaurant worker; I spend most of my time today speaking to chefs, owners, staff, researchers and the list goes on. When you work in hospitality, the restaurant is your home and the crew becomes your family. All your meals are eaten at work, all your socializing is done with your colleagues. We face trials and tribulations in the industry all the time (I poke fun at these experiences (@allezceline). Most of the time we can laugh at this stuff.

But when something catastrophic hits—it hits us all. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption and fallout throughout our industry. The restaurant industry is Canada’s 4th largest industry and employs close to 1.2 million people (as of 2016) in Canada.

A restaurant is a perpetual motion machine, we’re all connected in this industry—for everyone from the dishwasher to the owners, the suppliers, to the servers, the educators and journalists. Protecting small businesses and restaurants; enabling you to do business and ride this out is vital.
We matter. You matter. Since Sunday evening I have been interviewing industry folks from across the country to get their take on the state of the world right now. I didn’t ask them for solutions or answers, I just let them talk.

As they say on Law & Order, here are their stories.

Lee Man, food writer/co-founder Chinese Restaurant Awards, Vancouver, BC

Sunday, March 15th

“My great-grandfather started the company 60 years ago, I’m 4th generation in this business. Our customers and our employees are part of our family. I can’t tell restaurants whether to stay open or stay closed but I can do my best to support during what is one of the darkest times in the industry. Everyone is hurting.

Social distancing is the complete opposite of what we do in hospitality. It’s a pretty dark time.”

Ben Halberstadt, Faster Linen, Toronto, ON

“Friday night we had a busy evening just as the news was coming out. We were all very much on edge, uncomfortable with our regular restaurant service being part of the problem. It really got to us. We called a lot of our staff yesterday and told them if they didn’t feel comfortable coming in they didn’t have to come in. The only reason we’re doing take out is to keep people employed. Nobody knows what’s going on, there’s so much uncertainty.”

– Ariel Schor, co-owner, Restaurant Beba, Verdun, QC

Monday, March 16th

“For us to stay open right now, we’re hoping to provide some semblance of normalcy and just another essential option. In this day and age, I’m pretty sure people are not used to cooking three meals a day, especially under these circumstances. As long as we can stay open safely we’re going to do that. We’re trying to be as positive about this as long as possible.”

– Shlomo Buchler, Maker Pizza, Toronto, ON

“When I checked the books on Tuesday, we had 160 for Saturday. By the time we opened on Saturday, we were down to 44. On Sunday we stayed open till 8 pm and only did about 4 covers. It’s a surreal time to be living through right now. I’m hoping when this is done people will have had enough of being cooped up in their houses and will rush back to support bars and restaurants and places that they love. But I don’t know. I’m afraid for smaller bars and restaurants, how they’re going to stay afloat, pay rent. I’m scared for them and for my friends who work in those places.”

– Nick Watson, bartender, Constantine, Toronto, ON

Tuesday, March 17th

“When you run a restaurant you’re used to always having something you can do to make a situation better. We realized Monday morning that we could not do that. It’s not a question of when we close, it’s a question of when can we reopen. If we can mitigate the risk, that’s our best chance to reopen sooner.

We have no idea what’s going to happen financially. Today is payday, so everybody gets paid and then we’re asking them to hold tight until we have more information.

We want to feed our staff so they’re coming in one at a time today to pick up tips and we’re sending them home with food. We’re giving away what we can and freezing what we can. We’ll call Fredericton Community Kitchen to see what we can donate at the end of the day.

We’re in New Brunswick, this is not the same economic environment as other cities. We just hope that our government is going to take care of us. At the end of the day, we’re willing to lose our business in order to be good citizens. I don’t know what other choice really to make.”

– Jennie Wilson, co-owner 11th Mile, Fredericton, NB

“I was abroad staging, two weeks ago I came back to Canada for a sous chef job at $50k salary plus benefits. I moved into a new apartment a week ago and was let go yesterday. My financials are rough, to say the least. I applied for EI immediately. There’s no timeline given, the email just says they’re processing the application. They send job alerts and that’s about it. Part of applying for EI is that you have to be applying for jobs still. I’m getting alerts for stuff like Montana’s Steakhouse. These postings are from December of last year, so I’d be surprised if they’re actually hiring now.

I’m scared. I was saving for a while to move into the city and now I finally got a promotion and life was going my way. Now it’s all been ripped out from under me. All of my friends are in the same boat.”

– Anonymous, chef, Toronto, ON

“I work for four different companies, none of them can send me out anymore. All LCBO shifts have been cancelled. I work at BMO Stadium in the beer concession and that got cancelled. I try and keep away from the negativity that doesn’t do anybody any good. I gotta laugh about it. If I don’t, I’ll cry.”

– Kathy Batz, catering server/bartender, Toronto, ON

Meeru Dhalwala, chef/co-owner, Rangoli and Vij’s, Vancouver, BC

“Vikram and I are in constant communication with staff. The back of house are cooking and the front of house are coordinating takeout and delivery.

People outside of the restaurant industry – be safe, but still participate in your local economy. The key is going to be how we all work as a community and what I’m relying on is that once this is over we all pitch in and we go out to eat and go to the pubs and go to the movies and become a vibrant city again.”

Meeru Dhalwala, chef/co-owner, Rangoli and Vij’s, Vancouver, BC

“The minute we put the post up (that we were closing) on Sunday evening my phone was ringing off the hook – everyone offering whatever they could to try and support us. Winnipeg’s that way.

I paid everybody up to the last day and there are no dollars left in the account. I just called all my suppliers and said don’t put cheques in the bank. It’s breaking my heart.

As for me, I don’t know. My bills are paid for the month, I have gas in my car. I guess I can drive my car around a little while, but I have no income.”

Talia Syrie, chef/owner, The Tallest Poppy, Winnipeg, MN

“We are doing takeout, it’s unknown whether we’ll continue because the numbers are so low. It’s not worth being open. I’m drafting a letter to all of our landlords. I’m not saying we’re not paying rent, we’re trying to be as compassionate as possible and not trying to withhold payment but we’re open to their suggestions too as to how we can make this work. Because if they do lock us out, I don’t think there will be anybody else moving in. It’s in their best interest to work with us. I’m asking that the landlords defer our rental payments for April or use our last month’s rent deposit and then reassess. It’s hard to make blanket asks when we don’t know how long we’ll be closed for. If it’s a mandated closure then I don’t know how we can be expected to be generating any business right now. We are totally on board with not wanting to spread the virus to any of our employees or customers. We get it. At the same point, what are we supposed to do?”

Brittany Jackson, co-owner, Starving Artist, 7 locations, Toronto, ON

Talia Syrie, chef/owner, The Tallest Poppy, Winnipeg, MN

Wednesday, March 18th

“We closed Sunday night. It’s a little tougher than owning one restaurant, I had to simultaneously choreograph eight restaurant closures. We had to do it over email because we didn’t want to bring 300-400 people together. It was not ideal but when people read that email they needed some sort of assurance that they’re gonna be okay and that was the last thing that we could really supply to them. As an owner, you know this isn’t your fault but you feel like it’s your fault. One of the main points I was trying to drive home to the staff was that there hasn’t been a time in any of our lives when the whole world is experiencing the exact same thing and I hope they can find comfort in that. Going forward we just sit and wait. I think it’s gonna be four weeks, maybe that’s wishful thinking. I’m scared that the landscape of dining will be changed for a while even after we open. I’m not expecting much from the government.”

I’ve been wearing my mouth guard during the day because I’ve been grinding my teeth so much.”

– Grant van Gameren, chef/owner, Bar Isabel + others, Toronto, ON

“The Chinese restaurants were hit hard first because their clientele from China was used to the idea of social distancing, so they lost a lot of business. But then local clientele rallied and showed support. Now restaurants can only open if they enforce social distancing with tables one to two metres apart. That’s hard for Chinese restaurants, so many of them depend on a high volume, low margin business. So this has been kind of like a one-two punch for them.

My mom used to go out for dim sum every day. Dining out and being in restaurants, it’s how Chinese people socialize with each other. My mom feels very isolated right now. I have a relationship with restaurants, it’s more than just being a patron. More than showing up and eating.”

– Lee Man, food writer/co-founder Chinese Restaurant Awards, Vancouver, BC

“The margins in this industry are so tight and it just sucks because March is already a heavy month financially. We’re coming out of a slow winter season and it’s a triple payroll month and HST payments are due. So this was a total curveball. We can only operate if we have money coming in. Yesterday we contacted the banks to try to get freezes on our loan payments, and we contacted our landlord. So far the response has been so supportive and so positive. Between yesterday and today, I’ve done a 180 in terms of feeling like we will come out of this. If (closure) lasts for months that could be a completely different story.

I’m looking forward to cracking the books open to look at how our business, and this industry, works in general, and how it could be changed so that when things like this happen there’d be more stability for employees and owners.”

Emma Adamski, co-owner Cafe Good Luck, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

Thursday, March 19th

“They announced they’re shutting down the liquor stores today at 2 pm. Shit hit the fan yesterday and every friggin’ islander was lined up. We got a box of wine, thank god. And you can still get growlers from the breweries.

Honestly, with how big this is, I have to sit and wait it out till it’s over, it’s not like I can go get a job at a different bar and make money. I have some savings so I’m okay for the time being. I feel like EI is kind of like the liquor store yesterday – everybody’s going nuts. Things are eventually going to get back up and running and until then there’s really not much we can do. Last week I was sitting around a pool in Florida drinking margaritas and talking about the lockdown in Italy, thinking this would all blow over.

– Brigitte Burke, server/oyster shucker, The Olde Dublin Pub, Charlottetown, PEI

“I grew up in poverty in the north end of Winnipeg. I’m just a home cook turned restaurateur, but I’m also a community-driven person. I hire indigenous people. I source my ingredients from indigenous people – berries, sweetgrass, wild rice, bison, pickerel.

I’m more concerned for my staff than anything. Most of them have just come off of being on social assistance, drug addiction, or being incarcerated. They are vulnerable, they’ve fought through so much hardship to get here. Some of them had never cut an onion in their lives and now they know how to cook for hundreds of people.

I’ve had to shut my doors and I’ve spent the last few days crying. [staff] will be coming here once a week and I’ll be giving them food and groceries to help them out.”

– Christa Bruneau Guenther, chef/owner, Feast Cafe Bistro, Winnipeg, MB

“The school shut down on Monday and we’re transforming our curriculum to online. Which is quite a feat to do in a few days. Some of the students are nervous, wondering what’s going to happen with their internships this summer. It’s a day by day scene. We’re trying to be cautiously optimistic, that our restaurant industry is going to be able to rebound. The student services for mental health are available and we’re encouraging students to use those. For me primarily I want to make sure that they are safe and getting fed. Yesterday we took all the fresh produce at the school and made up boxes for everyone in residence and took some to the shelters and the soup kitchen.”

Ilona Daniel, culinary instructor/food writer, Culinary Institute of Canada, Charlottetown, PEI

“Independent operators don’t really have a voice but we employ the largest amount of people in our sector. There will be money but we have to be organized if we’re going to get it. I’m working with other restaurateurs on a list of requests/demands of things that we need for survival now. We have to save our industry. We need another loan like we need a hole in the head. We don’t want any more debt, we need cash. It’s not like we’re going to make double the money once we re-open, that money is gone, it’s not coming back. The message I’m hearing from government is “tell us what you need, the bold will dictate the terms”. I think that politicians right now are actually willing to listen. It’s time for us to act.”

– John Sinopoli, chef/owner, Ascari Enoteca + others, Toronto, ON

Please stay up to date on this evolving situation by visiting the Restaurants Canada COVID-19 resource for foodservice operators.

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