The Bull and Barrel Pub has been a Barrie, Ontario institution for 26 years. With traditional pub fare and a wide selection of imported and domestic beers, Bull and Barrel Pub welcomes loyal locals and tourists alike to their cozy interiors and sun-soaked patio.
Yvette Wicksted took over ownership 16 years ago in 2005 and has kept the traditions alive. The Bull and Barrel continues to serve fish and chips, house-made pub pies, and “arguably the best liver and onions in town.” Conveniently located close to Hwy 400, in the east end of Cedar Pointe Business Park, the pub is the optimal stop-off for cottage-goers and skiers. In fact, it was voted Best Pub in Barrie two years in a row!
A lively go-to pub for the community, all operations halted in March 2020 with the first lockdown. “We ceased operations in the first lockdown and I used the time to refinish some of the interior furnishings,” explains Yvette. Unfortunately, as other operators can attest to, the continual lockdowns lasted longer than anticipated and the pivots that many made weren’t always successful. “In the second lockdown, we tried takeout but it was unsuccessful. We tried takeout again in the next shutdown but again it was not sustainable so we closed all operations then and for all subsequent shutdowns. When we were open at reduced capacity, we reduced hours of operation, and cut our menu in half.”
In 2021, Bull and Barrel was closed for 161 days (23 weeks) and in 2020, they were only able to offer outdoor dining for approximately 35 days (five weeks). To keep afloat in this challenging time, Yvette applied for numerous government programs: “I have received both provincial and federal grants and loans including CEBA, Ontario small business support, tax rebate, energy rebate, and wage and rent subsidies.”
These subsidies have been a lifeline for the Bull and Barrel. Yvette elaborates: “I am open five days a week due to staff shortages and with the help of subsidies, I can manage wages and other costs but cannot pay rent if the subsidies are cut off and I am unable to open seven days per week.”
On this note, staff shortages are top of mind for Yvette who states, “Pre-pandemic I had 18 people on staff. I currently have eight but need a minimum of two to three more to open seven days per week.” Yvette explains further saying that “I have brought back all staff that remained in the market but with reduced capacities, it was not possible to bring back everyone since I did not have the hours to offer. I am hoping to be back to full staff levels in the next year.”
Concerning staff, it’s a bit of a lose-lose situation for Yvette. She can’t offer the hours for her staff, as capacity is reduced. At the same time, being able to serve more and serve more often, would mean that she would be able to support more staff. Though even finding the staff to employ remains an obstacle. “I have been left with advertising my openings for so long it is no longer effective. The applicants I get are mainly off-shore or unqualified. I am hoping that the market will loosen up and I will once again be able to hire from my choice of solid candidates,” Yvette states.
To offset these issues, Yvette has implemented a number of strategies. “I have shrunk my menu, increased prices, reduced hours and do not offer any discounts or specials,” she says, “I offer featured items instead to keep our selections interesting and fresh. We give great service and have an excellent reputation we are working to retain. I will keep my outdoor space open as long as possible as well.”
Yvette is hopeful that the trials facing the foodservice industry will subside and Bull and Barrel will flourish, allowing the entire community to flourish as well. “This pub (which I humbly think is the only real pub in Barrie) has been here for the locals and visitors for nearly 26 years. Our employees all have families who rely on us for their living,” explains Yvette. “The effect of a heritage business such as ours not continuing would be felt from the local bakery, vegetable and wholesale businesses we support, from the local equipment dealers, waste management and maintenance companies we hire, all the way up the chain to the ownership of the building we lease. The ripple effect is enormous and we are one of many.”