What it’s like to open a new restaurant during a pandemic

Restaurants that have had their official openings delayed by COVID-19 are taking some creative approaches to build customer support
By Jessica Huras - Published on May 29, 2020
Thr33’s Company Snack Bar, in Ottawa, had been gearing up to open in April. (Courtesy of Thr33’s Company Snack Bar)



When Maxime Hoerth and his business partners opened their French restaurant, Pompette, on May 8, it wasn’t exactly the launch they had envisioned. They had wanted to offer Toronto a neighbourhood gathering place, but, instead, they’re selling pantry staples and heat-at-home meals to go.

Pompette is among the many Ontario restaurants that had been preparing to open this spring, before the pandemic created a crisis in the dining industry. Some, like Pompette, are ploughing ahead and offering takeout service while they wait for permission to open their dining rooms.

Hoerth says that the Pompette team had planned to launch takeout after their dine-in service was up and running, so flipping their business plan was a natural move. “Instead of opening a restaurant and then opening a shop,” he says, “we opened the shop first.”

Hoerth admits there are challenges to establishing a customer base without the option to showcase a dine-in menu. “A lot of people — a lot of potential clients — living in the neighbourhood, they don't know us,” he says. “It would be easier if we could welcome them into the restaurant.”

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Although Hoerth had planned to hire a full team to staff the restaurant, he’s currently running Pompette to Go with his two partners and a part-time employee.

It’s the small saving grace for restaurants that have had their openings derailed: with no staff on payroll and no food supplies stocked in their kitchens, they have had fewer expenses to manage than have operating restaurants that were suddenly forced to shut down.

That’s why Andrew Oliver, president of Oliver & Bonacini Restaurant Group, describes the situation as “a blessing and a curse.” The hospitality group, which is behind such Toronto spots as Canoe and Maison Selby, was set to open a new restaurant called the Rabbit Hole this spring.

“We’re lucky in the sense that we haven’t deployed all the capital into this project yet,” Oliver says, adding that this has given the group the financial flexibility to step back and reassess whether its current strategy will work in the post-COVID world.

His team is still evaluating whether it will eventually be able to move forward with the original plans — or have to rethink what the Rabbit Hole will look like in a new era of physically distanced dining. “Unfortunately, the only thing that will determine that is time and seeing how the world evolves,” he says. “We did spend a lot of money getting ready to do this, and putting it on hold is a challenge.”

Established restaurant groups, such as O&B, aren’t the only ones hoping to wait out the worst of the pandemic. Tyler Da Silva and his business partners have put the breaks on their Ottawa restaurant Thr33’s Company Snack Bar, which they had been gearing up to open in April.

“We're absolutely banking on our vibe and our aesthetic and the atmosphere when you come to the restaurant,” says Da Silva. “So I really didn't want to get off on the wrong foot.” He says the eclectic small-plates menu he’s planning wouldn’t make the right first impression in the form of takeout. 

“The places that are killing it [with takeout] are the places that have been established for a long time and places where the food speaks to having takeout,” says Da Silva. He’s hoping to serve deep-fried drumsticks at Thr33’s. But, he adds, “once it gets to someone's house, it's 30 minutes of just steaming in that plastic container, so you don't get what I want out of it.”

He and his partners have been continually reevaluating their options. The Ontario government has yet to roll out a timetable and guidelines for reopening restaurant dining rooms, so Da Silva says it’s been impossible for Thr33’s to map out firm plans and timelines. “We're in a situation where we don't know what's going on: we don't know an opening date; we don't know the regulations that are going to be put in place,” he says. “It's like playing football, and you don't know where the end zone is.”

When the pandemic hit, Stephen Schweighardt thought he would delay the opening of his new Toronto café, Larry’s Folly. His plan had been to run Larry’s as a café by day and a bar and live-music venue by night. Like Da Silva, he was wary about opening without being able to offer customers the full dine-in experience.

A month later, however, with no reopening date for dining rooms on the horizon, Schweighardt says it became clear he would have to open the café in some form to generate cash flow. “My business plan has taken a complete shift,” he says. “Budget-wise, I've been trying to strip it back to what's going to be simplest and most cost-effective to get the doors open.”

Schweighardt is now aiming to open Larry’s Folly as a takeout café and hopes to phase in other elements when physical-distancing protocols are relaxed.

“It’s bittersweet, because it’s finally happening, and we’re making some big steps,” he says. “But, with the current climate of everything and the finances, there’s also a lot of weight I’m carrying.”

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