Restaurants try to make the best of their toughest holiday season yet

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TORONTO — While Karen Ward and her family cook takeout meals at the Grover pub, she often hears a knock at the windows or door of the east-end Toronto bar.

There she finds regulars wanting to say hello or tell her how much they’ve missed the place since it temporarily closed for indoor dining in November, when COVID-19 protocols came into effect.

Not being able to grab a seat and some wings inside is difficult for many, but the holidays have brought an even greater sense of sadness.

“They have nothing else and some would consider themselves family … Those people will be spending the holidays on their own,” Ward said.

“If it were any other year, I would open the doors on Christmas Day and just have a big family get-together.”

Such scenes are unfolding in almost every corner of Canada as the country’s first COVID-era holiday season nears with many bars and restaurants closed.

Owners are in for trouble with no parties to host and no end in sight to the worries that have kept them up many nights.

While some hoped they would be coping better with the pandemic at the nine-month mark, most say that’s far from the reality. Instead, they’re more stressed than ever.

They worry about the bills arriving soon and the ones they’ve already had to dig into savings or plead for loans to cover.

They contemplate whether to say goodbye to the businesses they’ve dedicated their lives to, but mostly, they hope that their establishments can hang on just long enough to see this pandemic through.

For Ward, it’s been an emotional journey to even get this far.

While she and her ex-husband only took ownership of the Grover during the summer, she’s managed the bar for six years, lived next door to it for 25 and even recalls her mother visiting when Ward was a teenager. Her daughter runs the kitchen and is the brains behind the restaurant’s new menu.

The holidays have always been a special time at the pub. It’s typically festooned in decorations and the downstairs event space hopping.

At her son’s behest, Ward put a tree in the window and some lights around an area of the restaurant where she is selling alcohol to go.

“I’d been so bah humbug about it, but I think it now brings the community back together,” she said.

The decorations, however, can’t mask some of the troubles. Despite thinking the 30 per cent commission is too high, Ward registered the Grover on Uber Eats earlier this month, but it’s taking time to build a customer base.

As of Nov. 30, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) said 62 per cent of small businesses in the country were fully open, but only 41 per cent were fully staffed and 29 per cent were making normal sales.

And industry group Restaurants Canada says more than 10,000 eateries have disappeared since the introduction of pandemic lockdowns.

The CFIB estimates small businesses will only capture a third of consumers’ holiday spending and anticipates a full recovery of the hospitality sector will take eight years, if the current pace continues.

“To hear eight years, that’s scary,” said Christa Bruneau-Guenther, executive chef and owner of Feast Cafe Bistro.

Her Winnipeg restaurant, which serves contemporary dishes rooted in First Nation foods, was in the middle of a $100,000 expansion of its catering business when COVID-19 hit and it had to cut back on staffing.

Thinking about part-time workers with disabilities and the community at large, Bruneau-Guenther wasn’t ready to give up.

She retooled her business to include a mini market, created meal kits and added takeout items like bannock pizzas and bison chili, burgers and meatballs.

It was enough to hire back 12 staff, but the restaurant and her catering business is still missing its holiday buzz, which often makes up for the January and February slow periods.

She hopes she can instead entice people to pick up pre-cooked turkeys, hams and roasts with all the fixings.

“It’s pretty disheartening when I’m driving home after a long day of just hustling and bustling to see the lineup at McDonald’s,” she said.

“Dig a little deeper and look at local restaurants … that are really the backbone of the economy.”

Jenny Burthwright, the founder of Jane Bond BBQ in Calgary, agrees.

She wishes more people, especially the younger generation, understood how important supporting mom and pops and other small business can be because they contribute to the country’s fiscal well-being and a community’s identity.

Over the last nine years, she turned her Mongolian grill food truck into a BBQ business and in January, signed a lease to open a brick-and-mortar location over the summer.

“We envisioned a year where we probably got smacked around by how busy we were,” she said, noting how much anticipation there was around the summer months and the Calgary Stampede, which ended up cancelled for the first time in more than 100 years.

Instead, Burthwright’s business faced temporary shutdowns as Alberta tried to get COVID-19 under control. Jane Bond lost at least half its revenue and staff have been laid off.

“There’s 100 per cent a chance that we won’t make it and survival mode, I think that’s something that we’ve been in the whole time,” Burthwright said.

She is still crunching the numbers and hoping loyal customers will like her meal kits and pickup fare, including brisket roast, Cajun corn, smoky gravy and garlic mashed potatoes.

If you’re stuck on what to have this holiday, she says with a laugh, “a barbecue Christmas is a super fun idea.”

 

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