Rosanna Caira: When COVID-19 forced the closure of restaurants, did you pivot to takeout or did you have to change your approach?
Scott Vivian: It took me about a month to figure out exactly what we wanted to do. I didn’t want to [make decisions] out of desperation and open up something I would then have to shut down because it wasn’t working. I didn’t feel strongly enough that we could stay afloat just on takeout food alone. I’ve always enjoyed visiting the different family-style neighbourhood bodegas when I go to New York and that was what I was conceptualizing pivoting to. The Canadian government announced we would be able to start selling alcohol to-go out of our restaurants, which was a huge deciding factor in opening up the Beast Bodega, because it allowed us not only to be a bottle shop with unique [offerings] — craft beer from around Ontario and wines you couldn’t get in the LCBO — but also products we have access to, through our suppliers, that you can’t necessarily get at the grocery store. And then components of takeout food, as well as prepared foods — [dishes] we make at the restaurant that can be packaged and sold.
RC: How many staff were you able to retain?
SV: Before COVID, in the restaurant working, we had 12 total employees. To start, I was able to bring back one cook in kitchen and it was just myself out front. As we’ve grown in the last eight weeks or so, I’ve made a few changes based on being able to grow organically and allow for changes to be made along the way. I’ve brought on a new chef named Nathan Middleton, formerly of Petty Cash, and he’ll be running the kitchen starting this week. He’s also going to be a partner in the business. I brought back one of our servers to work the front (because we’re just doing counter service) to explain what
RC: Can you give us more details about the concept?
SV: The bottle shop is in the front of the restaurant as you walk in. We’ve used the tables where people would normally be sitting as display counters for the products [we’re] offering. We have a lot of [items] — 100km Foods has always been one of our suppliers, so we’re getting a lot of local
RC: Have you fully rolled this out or are you in the process of doing so as we speak?
SV: This was launched the first week in May and, as each week goes on, we see which products are selling and what the demand is. As people start asking for products, we’ll bring them in. We had a couple of weeks when we had beautiful local strawberries and asparagus when those were in season. We were letting the neighbourhood and our clientele dictate what they’re looking for. We’re doing some prepared foods, hot sandwiches and items like that people can grab to go and now that we have a couple of tables on the patio, they can sit down and enjoy those on the patio. But, the fun, unique part of the bodega is its a relaxed atmosphere, even though there’s no table service. With the COVID-19 regulations, people are able to have a nice, safe, individual shopping experience or same-household shopping experience. If they choose to sit out on the patio and enjoy they can, but you can literally come in and buy a bottle of wine at retail. And, if you want to sit down on the patio, crack open a beer and drink it, we’re licensed out there so you can do so as well.
RC: What has the feedback been like from your customer base?
SV: It’s been pretty amazing. [In the] 10 years of having this restaurant, there’s always been the challenge of ‘can I make it sustainable with the support from the neighbourhood and as a full-service restaurant?’ We obviously got a lot of support from the neighbourhood, but that also means we would see regular customers that live in and around the area maybe a couple times a month or three or four times a year on special occasions. Whereas now that we’re more a local neighbourhood bodega, we’re getting the support from the regular clientele who live in and around the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and are driving in and showing their support, but we’re also seeing that the neighbourhood has really embraced it. We’re starting to see those people who we only saw a couple times a month now coming in two or three times a week to do a shop for their groceries, take a lunch break because they’re working from home, grab a sandwich and pick up some cheese and charcuterie before it’s time for them to start cooking dinner and a bottle of wine. You don’t have to wait in line at the grocery store or LCBO; you can just walk right in.
RC: Is this concept temporary or will you keep the bodega open post-COVID-19?
SV: [We’ll keep it] for the foreseeable future. As long as it’s sustainable, it allows me to have a lot more control over my labour costs. One of the issues I’ve had with our restaurant industry, even pre-COVID-19, is that I felt like the industry was already broken. COVID-19 just shined a light on some of those issues that weren’t really being addressed and one of those is the wage inequality between front of the house and back of the house. The idea of the bodega is to eliminate that divide between the two different pay rates of staff, allow it to be one cohesive restaurant or bodega and pay everybody a fair wage, so there’s no discrepancies while having more regular hours. I mean, it took COVID-19 for me to sit at home and realize, I kind of like this. Those 16-hour days in the kitchen, for those that really care about the industry and care about their livelihood, are going to become a thing of the past. It’s much more important for me — and maybe it’s because I just had a kid — to have a [small] semblance of a life outside of the restaurant and for my staff to as well. This concept allows me to do that and, in the business model of the bodega, it allows me to expand, whereas if I just re-opened as a full-service restaurant, that model’s already there and it’s kind of difficult to expand on -— now I can concentrate on office catering, takeout packages and business like that.
RC: Do you think that is a sustainable model? Obviously, there’s fewer expenses, but do you feel comfortable with that?
SV: I do. Only the future will decide whether or not the business model is sustainable, but for me, looking forward, it gives me the opportunity to wrap my head around the concept more easily. I don’t have all those costs up front that I did while I was running a full-service restaurant. I’m fortunate enough that I do have a small space, so the transition was a little bit easier and it’s a little bit easier to manage as well. In this neighbourhood; it was something lacking in the area. When you [look at] the demographics, there’s a lot of residents and very little for grocery [options] and there’s really no LCBO anywhere close by — the pickings are quite slim. It’s very important to me to still maintain the philosophies of Beast and the bodega still allows me to do so.
RC: You recently posted on social media about how the industry was broken before COVID-19. What prompted you to put that post out and what kind of reaction did you get from people in the community?
SV: I’ve been in the restaurant industry for more than 25 years now and I’ve had Beast for 10. I’ve done things over the years to put myself in a leadership role and, really, it’s always been about Toronto. I’ve never done it for sales gain. I’ve always felt that Toronto is a very special food city and needed the proper attention and I’ve been fortunate over the years to draw some attention to that. It’s been not as an individual, but in a collaboration or collaborative kind of setting. I found it was more successful, in that approach, to bringing attention to the industry and the special food scene that we have. I had this sense [that], when COVID-19 first came about and restaurants had to shut down, there was a lot of support, a lot of talk and a lot of organizations, such as Restaurants Canada, that took the torch and decided they were going to be the voice of the restaurant industry. And I feel like, as time has gone on, the transparent efforts from those organizations have dwindled. So, as I sat at home and watched what was going on, I could only imagine what other people in the industry are feeling and thinking and, from speaking with other friends in the industry and hearing some of the issues that they were having, I felt somebody needed to say something. And it wasn’t so much that I have all the answers…it was more, let’s create some dialogue and talk about this and, as a collaborative, figure out, as an industry, how we can make things better. I don’t feel comfortable having other organizations that primarily represent the large conglomerates representing small businesses and there needs to be a subcommittee put together — whether it’s by me or somebody else that wants to collaborate or take the torch — and knock on the government’s door to try to find out what’s going on. Because, right now, we’re not really getting any support at all. There’s a lot of band aids that are being given with different programs out there, such as the rent subsidy, which, when left in the hands of the landlord, has already proven unsuccessful. There could be a more concentrated approach to it, where we deal with the individual priorities and move on as each one gets checked off, as opposed to proposing 10 or 15 different things that get lost in the paperwork and bureaucracy of the government.
RC: Has the landlord issue been something you’ve had to struggle with during the COVID-19?
SV: Being a small restaurant, I’m fortunate enough that my landlord is an individual. I do respect the fact he has a mortgage to pay and he has bills to pay as well. And, honestly, I don’t really put the responsibility on him. I’ve been paying rent since the shutdown — he doesn’t have any interest in applying for the for the rent-subsidy program. The government should have approached that program a bit better and either made it mandatory or put it in the hands of the small business to fill out the application with support from the landlord.
RC: Were you able to take advantage of things such as the forgivable loans put in place by the government early on in the pandemic?
SV: I was able to apply for the forgivable loan. But, believe it or not, even with a small restaurant, that money didn’t last very long — it basically allowed me to re-open with the bodega concept, purchase products, pay back any outstanding balances I had with suppliers so I continue to move forward with them and pay rent. When you’re paying rent and don’t have any sales coming in, that money fizzled out really quick.
RC: Do you feel the voice of independents is being heard less than the bigger players? And what’s the solution for that moving forward — what does the industry need to do to help the independent restaurateur?
SV: These committees and organizations need to realize that small businesses do make up a good [portion] of the restaurant industry in each individual province. Their approach to talking to the government, as an industry as a whole, representing all of Canada, makes sense and needs to happen, but there needs to be a sub-committee representing the small businesses because I do find that the small business is not getting represented as well as it should be.
When it comes to government, obviously, money is a huge factor and the big businesses, the chain restaurants, do represent quite a large part of that. But, if you look at our industry as a whole and at the dynamics of most of the food cities in in Canada, small businesses make up the big part of that and create quite a dynamic for tourism and the supply chain. So yes, there needs to be a bigger voice for the smaller guys like us in order to have proper representation. I want to make it clear, I’m not calling these guys out; I’m not calling Restaurants Canada out and saying they’re not doing anything. I, as a business owner, am not seeing any more transparency from them — I actually have no idea what they’re doing. At the beginning [of COVID-19], they were talking a lot about what they were doing and now we haven’t heard anything. So, I’m left to assume that either nothing’s happening or whatever is happening is getting buried under other paperwork — it’s kind of an eerie feeling. And, hence, the [social-media] post I made. After being in the business for so many years, if I’m not feeling confident, then imagine how other people who haven’t had as much experiences have been feeling.
RC: What were some of the comments you got from fellow restaurateurs in the city? Are they expressing the same frustrations or were there other concerns that surfaced?
SV: Honestly, it was all positive. There was a lot of support, a lot of words of encouragement, and it re-affirmed the idea that we’re all in this together and we’re all feeling the same thing — we don’t know if we’re going to be open tomorrow or not; we don’t know if we’re going to get any help. And, [it’s] not only the day to day, but what happens in a couple months from now when CERB runs out and all those unemployed industry workers are left to fend for themselves? And what happens if regulations aren’t being lifted and we’re closer to the end of the summer and into the holiday season; what happens to the business we relied on during the holiday season — large company parties and family parties — if nobody feels comfortable dining in a dining room?
RC: Are you worried about the industry in terms of what happens to those independents who won’t be able to come out of this alive?
SV: I’m extremely worried, to be honest. As a consumer, I worry because I love to go out to eat and to not know if my favourite restaurants in the city are going to be around when restrictions are lifted is unnerving. I don’t have all the answers, but one thing I do know is we need to make some serious changes to the way our industry runs. We’re a resilient industry and a lot of people will make it through this. But, the ones that don’t — where does that leave their future? Because, for people like me, who’ve been in the industry for 25 years, it’s not like I’m just going to go find a new profession if this doesn’t work out — this is what I’ve invested my whole life’s work into. So, it’s kind of sad and things do need to change. Commercial real estate has gotten completely out of control in Toronto and needs to be regulated; the wage inequality of restaurants needs to be addressed; mental-health issues; systemic racism — these are all problems that have existed in restaurants for years. And, as the microscope is now on and as we all try to figure out what our business is going to look like in the years to come, this is the time to address those situations and create positive environments for our employees and our customers.
RC: How has the supply chain dealt with this this pandemic? Have they been helpful for restaurants that have remained open?
SV: I obviously have a unique situation because I deal with a lot of local suppliers and they’re pretty small as well. So, we’ve been able to work together and a lot of them have pivoted to home delivery and opening their businesses up to the public, which obviously, they needed to do. But, as far as help from a lot of those larger industries, I haven’t seen or heard much of anything. It’s like they’re waiting for all of this to blow over. But, what they don’t realize is, if they’re not helping right now, I don’t know if there’s going to really be much come out of this when it’s all said and done.
RC: What are you hearing from your fellow restaurateurs and chefs now that restaurants are starting to re-open patios and dining-rooms?
SV: On the patio subject, to use my restaurant as a perfect example, we’re only licensed for 16 [patio seats] and it’s pretty easy to do the math of what 50 per cent of that is — that’s not a very sustainable business model. When the City of Toronto rolled out the CafeTO program, it was basically like, if you have a sidewalk or outdoor space, all you have to do is apply for it and you can put tables out in that space. Unfortunately, I know a lot of people that were denied their applications. Those that were able to obviously have tried to take advantage of it, but for a 2,500-sq.-ft. restaurant that could only put three tables on the sidewalk, what is that really going to do for them financially? And then you have to bring an extra employee in, who’s paid either hourly or salary, to manage those tables and it just starts to add extra costs. I don’t think the patio rollout was an answer.
As for the 50-per-cent capacity in dining-room, what does that actually do for your sales? How often are you going to be able to turn those tables? How much staff do you have to bring back to execute it — it’s definitely not 50 per cent of your staff, because there’s a lot more that goes into it than that, especially from a kitchen standpoint. It’s going to take pretty much 100 per cent of your full kitchen staff to be able to execute something like that. So, I don’t believe the costs involved in re-opening in those formats are going to balance with the sales. But, right now, it’s desperate times and everybody’s just doing whatever they can to have any kind of sales coming in whatsoever, so I can’t really blame restaurants for doing it.
And then there’s the other side of things, too, from the consumer standpoint. Are people going to feel comfortable going into a dining-room? I know, for me, it’s been quite a while since I’ve actually sat in the restaurant and I don’t know how I feel about that. I don’t know how I feel, even with the table six-feet away, with a server leaning over me and whether people are wearing masks or not. It’s already been proven in the U.S. — with it re-opening in the irresponsible way it has — that even if you do take precautions at a restaurant, all it takes is one positive case to come up in your restaurant or staff and you have to shut back down again. And that’s a very uneasy feeling for restaurants who put all this time, effort and money into re-opening.
RC: Are you hearing from other chefs in the community that they’re reluctant to re-open?
SV: As restaurateurs and business people, a lot of us are feeling like it’s necessary to do so. Especially if whatever takeout model you’re doing right now isn’t generating enough income. But there is a large amount of that uneasy feeling and a lot of concern from the staff. I don’t see a lot of front-of-the-house [staff] rushing to come back to work — that’s from talking with my furloughed staff, who I’ve remained in contact with and other front-of-the-house employees in the industry. Yes, they realize they can’t live off of and remain on CERB or EI forever, but they’re feeling a little bit uneasy [about coming] back to work and having to serve people. They might have a mask on when they walk inside, but once they sit down to dine, they’re going to have to take the mask off to eat and drink and then, at that exact moment, as a server, you’re completely vulnerable. There’s a lot of policing and regulations that have been put on the business owner and I know we have to do it, but I also don’t find it’s necessarily fair to make that the responsibility of the establishment.
RC: Can restaurants really keep doing this for the next year until there is a vaccine?
SV: I don’t think it’s sustainable at all — not without help from the government. You’re talking about an industry that, on average, has astronomically low profit margins to begin with and then you take away the ability to make 100 per cent of your business back. And those four to six per cent profit margins start to dwindle very quickly.
And, let’s face it, a lot of restaurant operators can’t do their own delivery — they just aren’t set up that way. It’s a huge risk, too. There are insurance costs that come into that, there’s actually finding an employee or business owner that has a car and can drive around — it’s a much more complicated element to add to your business as opposed to just having people come in to either do curbside pickup or takeout.
RC: Do you see closures happ-ening with more regularity or will become more creative to keep their businesses alive?
SV: I would like to think the creativity has been there and will continue to be there. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how creative and how good of a business person you are, you’re very limited [in terms of] the creativity you can offer right now.
RC: What lessons have you learned operating during the pandemic?
SV: It’s re-affirmed the idea that, as restaurants or as an industry, we’re resilient and we do whatever it takes to make sure that our businesses and our industry can survive. As a small-business owner for the last 10 years, I’ve been pretty much thrown every single scenario you could possibly imagine and I’ve found a way to persevere and improve. But, for the first time in 10 years, I feel pretty helpless and, for the first time, I feel without help from the government, without some kind of rent subsidy and/or taxation subsidies or property-tax issues, most restaurants won’t be able to survive. It’s tough and it’s not fair for the industry to rely solely on the patrons of our industry to support it. And support isn’t just financial either; it’s looking at petitions and signing petitions that are there to help the industry; it’s using your power on social media to help promote these restaurants when you see they’re doing different initiatives. The reality is we have a government right now that’s not really taking the [struggles of] the restaurant industry seriously. And, if those government officials don’t feel like cooking at home for the rest of their existence and want to be able to enjoy going out to eat every once in a while, they need to put some programs and systems in place — it’s time to pay attention to the restaurant industry and realize that when small businesses thrive, our economy thrives.
RC: What advice would you offer other restaurateurs?
SV: I know it’s difficult right now, but to try to stay positive; to not get complacent and realize there are things that we can still do to help our business out. Do whatever you can — contact your MPs or any branch of government you can. At the end of the day, as politicians, voting power is very powerful and if we can start to make a difference by making our voices heard, even at the lowest levels of government, we start from there. Obviously, you need to concentrate on your business and work on that, but we can’t get to the point where we just throw in the towel and give up — we need to continue to persevere. We’ll come out of this, but it’s going to take a lot of work, and patience and help from the government. So, go out and do whatever you need to do to get the government officials to start listening — that’s the only way we’re going to come out of this as an industry.