Embracing Adversity: Ufficio

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Interview with Ivana Raca by Rosanna Caira

What have been the immediate impacts to your restaurant since COVID-19 first hit and restaurants were mandated to close? 
COVID-19 has contributed to a 75- to 80-per-cent loss in sales. First, we lost 
our regular evening business that included a lot of wine and liquor sales.

Then, we lost our office and corporate catering [business] that we had just started. We laid off our entire staff for at least three weeks. At the end of week three, our landlord, suppliers, credit-card companies, bank managers (regarding a business loan) would keep calling for payments.

Were you able to pivot to takeout and delivery or other different revenue streams?
In order to survive, we came up with a plan to do “Dinner for Two” on weekends with some of our favourite dishes —I believe we were the first to do it. We featured our Ontario Whole Trout and served it with rapini, our house-made rosemary-garlic focaccia and olives. The second option was agnolotti ai funghi with porcini, wild mushroom, butter, chive and Parmigiano-Reggiano. We also offered a vegan dinner: vegan crab cakes, vegan manicotti and rapini with vegan butter.

What was your strategy?

We hired back two waiters as drivers and I’ve been been working the line. We were already on the delivery apps, although our menu is reduced to just a few items to keep costs low and minimize waste. We prefer to keep the 25- to 30-per-cent commission from the delivery apps and deliver meals ourselves when possible. Our “Dinners for Two” are only available directly from our website and we process payment before the pickup or delivery. Our front window is open for pickup from the sidewalk. These items are also available for curbside pickup.

Our wine list is offered at 50-per-cent off our regular prices. We now also make a trip to Goosen’s Trout farm every week to cut out the middleman and have built a great relationship with them (they offer us free vegetables such as leeks and garlic scapes).

What are challenges and opportunities of this pivoting?
Dependency on the apps has been a challenge, as well as their high commission rates and the constant maintenance and updates, in addition to dealing with drivers. Purchasing takeout containers in appropriate sizes has also been challenging and costly. CERB has also been a deterrent to get people to return to work for us. 

What kind of safety precautions have you been taking to ensure consumers feel safe?
All necessary precautions are taken to ensure staff are healthy. Drivers and food handlers wear masks and all bags are sealed. I’m the only chef on the line. Curbside pickup is through the front window, customers pay in advance and don’t enter the restaurant.

What lessons have you and your team learned through this process?
We realize how important it is to connect with our customers. Driving food to someone’s home and knowing them by name after talking on the phone to them for 20 minutes creates lifetime relationships.

We also learned who is dedicated to support and work with us internally through unknown hard times, from suppliers to employees. 

How do you anticipate yourbusiness/industry may change moving forward?
Fear will remain. We expect to continue with our new offerings of meals to go, and that they will become part of the dining sector for some time, so it’s important that we offer a Ufficio dining experience in takeout form. 
The role of chefs will also change going back to our roots to be more hands-on in the kitchen. 

What’s your advice to other operators?
Stay connected with your community and staff. They want to support you and help you survive.

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Rosanna Caira
Rosanna Caira is the editor and publisher of Kostuch Media’s Foodservice and Hospitality, and Hotelier magazines. In her capacity as editor of Canada’s two leading hospitality publications, Rosanna directs the editorial and graphic content of both publications, and is responsible for the editorial vision of the magazines, its five websites as well as the varied tertiary products including e-newsletters, supplements and special projects. In addition to her editorial duties, Rosanna also serves as publisher of the company, directing the strategic development of the Sales and Marketing, Production and Circulation departments. Rosanna is the face of the magazines, representing the publications at industry functions and speaking engagements. She serves on various committees and Boards, including the Board of Directors of the Canadian Hospitality Foundation. She is a recipient of the Ontario Hostelry’s Gold Award in the media category. In 2006, Rosanna was voted one of the 32 most successful women of Italian heritage in Canada. Rosanna is a graduate of Toronto’s York University, where she obtained a BA degree in English literature.

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