Embracing Adversity: Liberty Entertainment Group

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Interview with Nick Di Donato by Amy Bostock

What have the immediate impacts been to your rest-aurant since COVID-19 first hit, when government made it mandatory to shut down business?
Given the government-mandated closure of non-essential businesses, including in-restaurant dining, we had to immediately transition to takeaway and delivery-only models. This has had a significant impact on our restaurants and revenues, given the bulk of our sales were from in-restaurant dining.

Did you have to lay off any staff? If so, how many?
Because of the transition to delivery and takeaway only, we were forced to temporarily lay off the majority of our staff. But, in keeping the restaurants open, we were able to ensure some of our key team members could continue to work and have a steady source of income during these difficult times. We laid off 800 people company wide.

Were you able to pivot to takeout and delivery or other different
revenue streams?

Yes, we were able to transition to a takeaway and delivery-only model at our Cibo Wine Bar locations, as they were already offering these options, and we were able to quickly expand the offering. We’ve also introduced a pop-up grocery concept at our King West and Yonge Street (Toronto) locations. These Cibo Markets offer household necessities, as well as produce, dry goods and prepared meals, and are intended to provide our local communities with access to essential items in a smaller-format store close to home.

We were also able to transition to takeaway and delivery only at BlueBlood Steakhouse (at Toronto’s Casa Loma). This required some modifications to our menu offering, as a fine-dining concept is not as easily translated to takeaway and delivery format.

What was your strategy?
The strategy is to remain adaptable and to react as quickly as possible to the evolving situation. It’s not business as usual, so we have had to adapt our offerings to allow us to find creative ways to operate given the circumstances.
To date, what have been the challenges and the opportunities of this pivoting?
One of the biggest challenges has been working with third-party-delivery services and the commissions they charge. When we were fully open and only offering delivery to supplement our core business, it was a very different situation. However, now that we’re reliant on delivery, paying a high commission makes it nearly impossible to remain profitable, given our food and labour costs.

One of the biggest opportunities has been the new ability to sell wine and spirits as part of our takeaway and delivery options. This was not previously permitted, but the new government provisions mean we can include a selection of wine and beer for delivery, which has allowed us to increase our sales.
What lessons have you and your team learned through this process?
Never take anything for granted and always be ready to adapt.

Based on expected changes or reductions in business, how do you anticipate your business may change moving forward?
Given the information available, we do expect when we’re able to re-open it will not be business as usual for some time. In order to safely re-open, we’ll likely need to make changes to how we operate and how guests dine in-restaurant.

This will probably be the case for some time and could include provisions such as limiting capacity to allow physical distancing, disposable menus et cetera. We’ll also have to rely on our takeout business much more moving forward and determine how to reduce delivery charges or implement new delivery systems because, without delivery as an incremental revenue source, we can’t
sustain the business.

What’s your advice to other operators?
Always stay open to change and be willing to adapt, especially in these challenging times when it’s difficult to predict what will happen next.

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