There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the restaurant industry across the country. Even when restaurants were able to have people in their dining rooms, they had to adhere to strict social distancing measures which often had their dining rooms sitting at half capacity, making it difficult to turn a profit. A joint study by Statistics Canada and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce released in late August predicted the possibility of 60% of Canadian restaurants failing in the following three months. Industry association, Restaurants Canada, predicted that the restaurant industry would loose between $21.7 billion and $44.8 billion in annual sales in 2020, and with the way 2021 is looking, it doesn’t seem like the numbers will be any better this year.
Locally, the food service industry is struggling. Both sit-down restaurants and local caterers are feeling the effects of either not being able to welcome diners into their restaurants, or the cancellation of large parties and events that would usually make up most of their revenue.
Erick Le Pors owns Dial a Chef catering in downtown Kemptville. He says that, since the pandemic broke in March, operating his small catering business has been hell. His niche is doing in-house parties, which is something that has not been possible for the better part of a year due to COVID-19. “People cannot gather,” he says. “Over Christmas, I did parties for six or seven people, but that is not enough. It’s too small for me to make a living.”
To try and make ends meet, Erick has been running a meal delivery service. He puts together a menu every week and makes deliveries both locally and to Ottawa, from Tuesday to Friday. He also does special dinners for holidays like Valentines Day, which is coming up this weekend. “It’s generating some cash flow, but it’s certainly not generating any profit.”
Erick says he is lucky because he works from home and doesn’t have any large overhead costs. That being said, the catering business is his only income, and he doesn’t qualify for any government support. Over the last 25 years, he has built up a loyal customer base, and, while some are ordering his meals on occasion, without large gatherings and parties it is difficult to make ends meet. “Mentally, you have to be resilient and try to find something to do and try to find new markets; but it’s hard.”
Natalie Castellas, the owner of another local catering business, Catered Affairs, agrees that the pandemic has made running her business extremely challenging. Many of her 2020 bookings were cancelled, and looking ahead to 2021, it doesn’t look like things are going to be any different. “All the weddings we had booked for 2021, they’re either saying they’re just going to the Justice of the Peace or City Hall to get married, or completely cancel the wedding,” she says. “So now we’re dealing with everyone looking for their deposits back, which we’ve been using for our cash flow.”
Natalie’s business was hit doubly hard because of the teacher’s strike in October, 2019. “We used to do a lot of catering for the teachers. For their PA Days, their hot lunches, all of that, got cancelled.” Catered Affairs was just able to recover from that financial setback when COVID-19 hit. “We kind of got double whammied in the two years.”
Much like Erick, Natalie has been putting together a weekly menu and doing curbside pick up for meals serving two or four, from Tuesday to Friday. They have been offering this service for 52 weeks and Natalie and her team have created a completely new menu each week. They also create special packages, like a Superbowl dip kit, and a special Valentines Day dinner. “It’s been slower business-wise, financially. The workload has been more, because there’s less people actually doing the job and coming up with new ideas and executing new things.”
Natalie has been keeping on top of all the grants being made available by the federal and provincial government; however, keeping Catered Affairs going from a financial standpoint is always on her mind. “It’s trying to decide how many loans to take out to stay afloat before you dig yourself into such a hole that you can’t get out.”
Right now, Natalie’s goal is just to stay operational long enough to be able to get back to business as usual. She is very thankful for the support of those in the community who have been ordering meals throughout the pandemic. “Just thinking about North Grenville in general, it’s amazing the support we’ve received from the community.”
It is not just the local caterers who are struggling. Many sit-down restaurants are finding it hard to make ends meet while they can’t welcome people into their dining rooms. Paul and Lisa Castonguay, of Paul’s Bistro in Oxford Station, are finding it difficult to adapt as rules and regulations change from week to week. Having opened for the first time just as the pandemic hit, they started with take-out and were happy when restrictions loosened, and they were able to open fully from July until the end of December. “We were just getting busy, like fully booked at weekends, and just starting to get our name known, and then we had to close down,” Lisa says.
Thanks to the community’s support, Paul’s Bistro does run a pretty busy take-out businesses and also has a little general store, however revenues have still dropped over 25%. Paul has wanted to have his own restaurant for over 10 years, and it has been very frustrating for both him and Lisa to have finally realized that dream only to have it limited by the pandemic. “There’s so much more that I want to be doing with specials and whatnot,” Paul says. “It doesn’t translate very well when you’re sticking it into a box or takeout container. Sure it’s fine and stuff, but it’s all in the presentation, and meeting people, and interacting with them. It’s the experience that we’re not getting.”
Lisa and Paul are also frustrated that North Grenville has been lumped in with big cities like Toronto, where most of the cases are. “It’s very frustrating to have to be closed when we are one of the places that definitely has room to socially distance, and we are following all the rules when we’re open and people are enjoying being here,” Lisa says. “It’s frustrating for the regulars that we’ve already established that are now ordering take-out, but they’re just waiting for us to open again.”
Shelley Stinson of South Branch Bistro in downtown Kemptville is also very frustrated with the government mandated shut down. Since they were allowed to reopen from the first shut down in June, she and her partner, Ken Baird, have spent thousands of dollars on plexiglass dividers and have put in place many other protocols to keep their staff and customers safe. “I don’t believe we should be locked down,” she says. “I don’t believe that small businesses are the problem.”
Right now, South Branch Bistro is doing take-out; however, Shelley says revenue is down at least 50%. Their main goal is to keep their staff employed and busy until they are able to open again, hopefully mid-February. They have received a government loan; but Shelley said that it is almost all gone into paying their overhead costs. “I really hope the lockdown lifts sooner than later, because, otherwise, I don’t know what we are going to do. I don’t know how much longer we can go without scraping the bottom of the barrel just to pay the expenses.”
Shelley says running the restaurant during the pandemic has been a lot of work, and now that they are not able to be open, there is no payoff. “I’ve been sad, I’ve been angry, I’m just trying to get through it. It’s stressful, and that comes out emotionally and physically, so it has been hard on us for sure.”
No matter how hard things get, Shelley and Ken are very thankful for their loyal customers and the support of the community. Shelley says the municipality has been very supportive, and they have many regulars that keep coming back. “Nobody wants to see businesses closing, so that’s a good thing to see. If anything came out of this that’s good, it’s that.”
Dial a Chef: 613-860-2539. www.dialachef.ca.
Catered Affairs: 820 Heritage Drive, 613-324-3136. www.cateredaffairs.ca
Paul’s Bistro: 2110 County Road 20. 613-258-9995. www.paulsbistrotogo.com
South Branch Bistro: 15 Clothier Street E. 613-258-3737. www.southbranchbistro.com
Hilary Thomson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Grenville Times