TORONTO — As the creative heartbeat of the industry, independent restaurants were forced to pivot almost overnight when the pandemic hit a year ago. And, the pivoting has continued through the various stages of the pandemic — from the total lockdown to the various permutations that have arisen through the past year and everything in between.
Earlier this week, a panel of restaurateurs shared the experience of what that pivoting looked like at this week’s Restaurants Canada show. In a panel moderated by Donna Dooher, owner and chef of Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, Patrick Saunier, owner of the Marc Restaurant Group in Edmonton; Brenda O’ Reilly of O’Reilly’s Irish Newfoundland Pub and Yellowbelly Brewery in Newfoundland; and Patrick Kriss, chef/owner of Alo Restaurant, the operators talked about the move to takeout and delivery, the learning curve involved and the struggles they have faced while pivoting to remain open in the face of adversity.
“We are the innovation machine and everyday we had to learn something new,” said Dooher, leading up to her question about what kind of innovation was required.
For Kriss, whose restaurant Alo has received critical acclaim since opening in Toronto a few years ago by offering an acclaimed tasting menu in a fine-dining environment, “Two weeks out, we recognized the inevitable,” says Kriss, who quickly pivoted to providing a multi-course tasting menu, priced at $65, to home consumers, including wine and cocktails. ”We brought the Alo multi-course [experience] to the home and they could unbox it themselves,” he explained. “We put together a playlist and they got their personalized menu. From there, we opened Alo bar; we did tents and we tried to stay ahead of [everything] by coming up with ideas…We had the mentality that we weren’t going to open for a long time, so takeout is our new business.”
For O’Reilly, whose portfolio includes four different restaurant concepts — a brewery/catering facility/restaurant, a lounge at the airport, an Irish pub and a seafood restaurant — the pandemic was devastating, with sales down by 50 per cent and a staff decline from 400 to 24. “The first two weeks, I put my head in the sand because it was pretty daunting,” she admits, but quickly she analyzed the differences in the businesses and pivoted accordingly.
O’Reilly admits that the Irish-pub model was predicated on the concept of “come in and enjoy yourself, listen to music — it was never about the food.” Ironically, the restaurant closed the day before St. Patrick’s Day, which typically was its busiest day; and it will probably be closed again this year. As a result, she’s pivoted to offering an entertainment experience of online concerts featuring local singers and combining the experience with take out. One such concert attracted 7,000 people.
“Social media was always on the corner of my desk, but now we’re hiring a social media manager,” says O’Reilly. “Whenever we feel desperate, sometimes it creates opportunity,” she offers. She also expanded the patio and extended hours by offering patio heating.
For Saunier, having only one restaurant has been helpful, allowing him to pause to decide which direction he wanted to take. “We took a good two weeks to assess the situation and get a grip of where we were financially; make sure our staff had the right focus of what were the options and the opportunities; and find that balance.”
In observing what others were doing, it gave the operator a chance to see what they were doing from his brand perspective. “We recognized, right away, that this was an opportunity, a pivotal moment of change that was going to change the industry.”
While Saunier would never have considered takeout, thinking the food wouldn’t travel well and wouldn’t be the same reproduction, the pandemic has now opened that door and helped him realize “it does work.” But, Saunier, also emphasizes that the consumer has “met us half way,” supporting the initiative because they want restaurants there when this ends.
Citing an AMEX restaurant survey that showed there was a 151-per-cent increase in takeout in 2019 among AMEX card members, Dooher asked the panel if they felt takeout would now become a pillar of their business model.
“We haven’t embraced delivery, but absolutely takeout will be one of our economic pillars moving forward,” says Saunier.
While the availability of the vaccine promises hope and “helps with consumer confidence,” says O’Reilly, she also notes it will take a while for consumers to return to normal.
But, says Kriss, “I think restaurants will come back with a vengeance. I also think people got into the routine of ordering and that will stay.” He also notes he just signed a lease for Alo Takeout, so that offering will remain. “Once we get to re-open it will be bonkers out there.”
Saunier reminded operators of the importance of ‘listening acutely to your customers and stressed: “Over deliver in sanitization [and] deep cleaning. There will always be 25 per cent of your customers that will hide in basements, 50 per cent will sit on the fence and, when they do return, they may not come back in droves. An air of caution will remain; we will have to step very gently until confidence comes back.”
Thankfully, say the operators, the government subsidies have helped. Kriss says his restaurant took “advantage of as many subsidies as possible,” adding he hopes the government will extend them past June. As the first industry to be hit, the chef/operator says this industry will also be the last out, so extending the wage subsidy is crucial to restaurants’ survival. “We need to have a conversation with government about how do we get beyond that June date. There has to be a long-term vision and we need to get people back to work.”
And, as Reilly states, “I wouldn’t be open without [the subsidy], but it would be great to extend it to first quarter of 2022.”