Lake of Bays restaurateur anxious but hopeful for business’ fate this tourist season

·4 min read

When Travis Rajapakse decided last March to buy a landmark building and restaurant in Dwight, he didn't predict the challenges he’d face over the next year.

“It’s a lot of stress,” said Rajapakse of running this restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m essentially just losing money every day.”

Rajapakse owns the Boiler Room Tap & Grill. The building has been a Lake of Bays tourism fixture since the 1990s. The restaurant had its grand opening in late August last year — it will be his first running the restaurant through the high peak of Muskoka’s tourism season.

However, Rajapakse said, he's having a hard time confidently planning for the future.

“I would love to have a busy summer, but I’m afraid they’re going to lock us down again,” he said. “It’s out of my control.”

With tourism season around the corner, small businesses have a chance to turn Lake of Bays' economic situation around after months of uncertainty and hardship, provided they can balance profit with persistent health and safety concerns.

New numbers from Lake of Bays’ 2020 business survey, published March 9, show Lake of Bays lost 130 net jobs in 2020 directly because of COVID-19.

Rajapakse said he laid off his nine-person staff during the December 2020 lockdown — whom he paid out of pocket to hire and train in the fall.

Rajapakse said he's scared to rehire the employees for the summer in case the region institutes another lockdown, and added it has been difficult to predict and adjust to the region’s restriction shifts over the last few months.

“(Restrictions) come on a Friday night and they tell me the next day,” he said. “People are so confused. I’m confused.”

In an email statement, Lake of Bays’ interim economic development co-ordinator, Leanne Fetterley, said the township’s top concerns for the summer are health and safety and continuing to support local businesses.

“We can’t predict what the upcoming season will look like,” read her statement. “There are still many unknowns.”

She wrote Lake of Bays might extend last summer’s Temporary Patio Expansion program to help restaurants boost their outdoor capacity this year.

There may be more leeway this summer: on March 20, Ontario changed its dining rules for restaurants in red and orange restriction zones, allowing an indoor dining capacity of 50 per cent instead of ten people per establishment. It's also allowing outdoor dining during grey “lockdown” zones. Only people from the same household can sit at a table together.

Rajapakse welcomed the news. He’s also hoping to expand his two patios for the summer to seat patrons two metres apart but accommodate more diners.

“We definitely don’t want our customers or workers to get sick,” he said.

"We certainly will work with our businesses to keep them operating within the requirements of the province's legislation," read a statement from Dr. Charles Gardner, Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit's medical officer of health.

Mike De Rose, president of the North Simcoe Muskoka and District Labour Council, said it's critical to recognize those most at risk during tourism season: seasonal and temporary workers, who make up the majority of employees in Muskoka’s tourism sector.

He said employers should collaborate with their employees to establish health and safety measures appropriate for their workplaces.

“These workplaces are the backbones of our economy,” he said. “It’s about working together to create the safest environment for everyone."

While the past seven months haven’t gone well for the Boiler Room, Rajapakse plans to keep hanging on.

“I wouldn’t have bought it if it didn’t have potential,” he said. “The big hurdle is this pandemic … you don’t really what to do or what’s going to happen next.”

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: With the release of what Leanne Fetterley called "worrisome" numbers in Lake of Bays' 2020 business survey, our reporter wanted to assess how new businesses are preparing for this spring and summer.

Zahraa Hmood is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering the municipalities of Muskoka Lakes, Lake of Bays and Georgian Bay. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

Zahraa Hmood, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, muskokaregion.com