It’s no picnic: What restaurant reopenings look like in Ontario

Reduced capacity. Day-trippers. Unexpected rainfall. Here’s how restaurants are managing new challenges as patio dining resumes
By Jessica Huras - Published on Jun 25, 2020
Since reopening, 555 Brewing Co., in Picton, has served many diners that have driven in from other Ontario regions. (Courtesy of 555 Brewing Co.)

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When Ottawa’s Metropolitain Brasserie welcomed customers back on June 12, after almost three months of dine-in service shutdown, the scene was quieter compared to pre-pandemic times.

“Normally, we're a bustling place,” says Sarah Chown, the restaurant’s managing partner. “The tables are really close together, and it's that vibe that’s loud and everybody table hops and sees their friends. That's something that's missing.”

Ontario regions have been gradually moving into Stage 2 of reopening since early June, allowing restaurants and bars to resume sit-down service in outdoor dining areas, such as patios. Reopening, however, isn’t the embrace-filled, unrestrained celebration that many of us envisioned when the province first declared a state of emergency in March.

Reopening restaurants are required to adhere to a strict set of safety guidelines issued by their local public-health units. Common requirements include maintaining a minimum of two metres between each edge of every table and keeping logs with the names and contact details of all customers and staff in case contact tracing is necessary.

With restaurants operating at about half their normal capacity and customers discouraged from roaming between tables, the buzzing atmosphere that once defined restaurants such as Metropolitain Brasserie has been toned down — for now, at least.

In spite of the more subdued atmosphere, Chown says it’s been exciting to start the process of reopening. “We have a lot of regular customers here that have been really dying to get back at it,” she says, adding that the restaurant had a busy opening weekend.

With indoor dine-in service prohibited, however, rain is a dealbreaker for many restaurants. Metropolitain Brasserie has a retractable tent that Chown says will protect customers from anything short of a downpour.

Other restaurants, however, such as Stratford’s Braai House, plan to open only on clear-sky days. Braai House is taking diners on a walk-in basis rather than offering reservations, which will give the restaurant more flexibility to open or close in response to daily weather changes. “If it's going to be a rainy day and people have booked a table three weeks out, we're going to have to call them all back,” explains chef/owner Anthony Jordaan.

Braai House’s patio typically seats 35 diners, but complying with physical distancing cuts its capacity to 15. Reduced capacity means reduced revenue — a new challenge for restaurants that have already endured the financial struggle of takeout-only service for the past few months.

At Braai House, Jordaan cleared out a rear parking area to make room for 25 additional seats. “When Ford said patios can open up, I looked at the back space and thought, this could make a patio,” he says. “It's a good size, and we've made it look really pretty.”

Many other restaurants, though, don’t have the extra space to expand seating on their own properties. That’s why most Ontario regions are either considering or have already implemented legislation to allow restaurants to temporarily extend their patios into streets and other public areas. It’s making a significant difference for restaurants with small outdoor dining areas, says Shelley Windsor, co-owner of Mercer Beer Hall & Kitchen in Stratford.

Mercer’s regular patio would have accommodated only about 10 physically distanced seats, but city permission to expand into the street has allowed the restaurant to safely fit 22 diners. “Without that, I don’t even know if we would have bothered to open for 10 seats,” says Windsor.

Like Braai House, however, Mercer Beer Hall is at the mercy of the weather. Windsor says they’ve been letting diners know that takeout will be the only option on rainy days. “We're hoping beyond all hope that we have a beautiful summer,” she adds.  

As restaurant owners try to balance the need for revenue with the safety of their staff and customers, the knowledge that some diners may be day-tripping from higher-risk areas of Ontario (where patios have not been given the green light to reopen) is a concern for many.

Natalie Wollenberg, co-owner of 555 Brewing Co., in Picton, says that, since reopening, they’ve served many diners that have driven in from other Ontario regions. She admits it’s not ideal but hopes that following best practices will keep everyone safe. “A lot of people have been very cautious when they're coming here, and, even if some people are not as cautious, we're very happy to point out what our guidelines are,” she says. “Here are our rules: you can either abide by them or you just don’t dine here.”

Mercer’s Windsor is happy to have diners back again, regardless of where they’ve travelled from, saying it’s the only way the restaurant industry can begin to recover. “I would say 90 per cent of our patio guests on our first weekend open were not from Stratford,” she says. “But we're following all the proper protocol here, and we did not feel unsafe … It's about mitigating the risks and reaping the benefits of our economy opening up gradually.”

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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