“I’m contemplating taking a second mortgage out on my home”: How restaurateurs are dealing with the pivot to takeout and delivery

“I’m contemplating taking a second mortgage out on my home”: How restaurateurs are dealing with the pivot to takeout and delivery

Toronto’s bars and restaurants were forced to close last week, but takeout and delivery are still deemed essential services—which means many of the city’s restaurateurs have had to make drastic changes in the way they do business in order to make money. We spoke with some bar and restaurant owners to see how they’re coping.

Leandro Baldassarre, Famiglia Baldassarre

How does a largely dine-in business switch to a takeout operation?
Last Monday we made the decision to close our dining room and do takeout only. We built the concept off of our retail-only Saturdays that were born out of the Christmas rush. It’s pretty simple, we just move the tables out of the way.

What coronavirus-related changes—operational or structural—have you had to make?
We’re now only allowing only one customer in the shop at a time. We started with two at a time, but as of last Friday, we switched to one—it’s just safer. We had one person with a kid who ran around and started touching everything—we had to re-sanitize our countertop after the kid was placed on the counter. I don’t feel like the public gets it quite yet, and we have a responsibility to be strict about that stuff. We had to put signs up to distance customers waiting in the alcove—we put pylons 10 feet apart, with one person per pylon. We started imposing limits on how much customers could buy at a time, because some people were taking too much.

We’re going to stop taking cash. I wish we didn’t have to, because cash is the most basic form of payment, but at this point it’s a necessary safety measure. Our number-one priority is the safety and health and our customers. If I feel that we have to close, I’ll close. The people who work with me isolate at home once the work day is done. One employee has elderly parents, so we’ve moved her work hours to the night shift, so she is staggered from our other employees. I’m trying to get masks for everyone in my shop, but it’s impossible—they’re all sold out. We’re working on putting up a plexiglass barrier and offering contactless payment to protect our staff.

What has the customer reaction been like so far? Have you been busy? Have people been tipping more?
The vast majority have been very positive. They don’t really say much, but they understand, and there’s been a lot of online support. I had one customer complain about the wait, to which I had not much to say—it’s just surprising that some people can be that selfish. Morale is high, though—we feel like we can serve a purpose. But it’s still stressful, so we have a meeting every day where I can check in with staff. We look forward to the days of a hundred people lining up for Baldassarre pasta, but that’s not happening now. For now it’s just not business as usual. We’re just here to do this safely, and as long as we have the ability to produce safely, we’ll keep doing it.

Have you had to change your menu to reflect the new reality?
We’ve started stocking more dry goods—flour, eggs, lentils, milk, beans, butter. Stuff that we use in the shop all the time. I want to be able to provide customers with the ready-made foods we produce, but also to be a place where people can pick up some of the staples they’d normally have to go to a grocery store for. We’ve started bagging the dry goods ourselves and selling directly to our customers. I even started bringing in stuff we don’t normally carry, like tuna, anchovies, olive oil, ’nduja—anything that’s shelf-stable and can complement our ready-made products.

How long do you think you can go on like this?
It’s hard to see the industry take a beating like this. It’s really impossible to say, I’m just taking it day by day. We’re in a good position in that we can always produce food—we just have to find a way to get it to the public safely. As long as I can keep people safely employed, I’ll do so. We have to ease the shock to our social system, so it’s almost like a duty to keep people employed. I want to stress that I’m not doing this because I want more people to come and line up and buy from us, even though I really am grateful for the support. I want people to follow the advice of health care professionals and stay home as much as possible. I’m doing this because I feel like it’s important to have a place people can get food from in a safe environment. Good and nutritious food that makes you happy.

Leeto Han, Oddseoul

How does a largely dine-in business switch to a takeout operation?
We’re still learning as we go right now. We started off doing prepared meats—our marinated beef, pork and chicken—but we don’t know how long this will go on. I don’t want to waste any product, so we’re looking for ways to get it out to the public. We’re also working with Uber Eats and Doordash to offer delivery. Last Monday, we were just selling vacuum-sealed packs of meat and kimchee to go, but we’ve gotten a lot of people asking us for prepared dishes. I’ve read some articles about how it’s “safe” to offer takeout or delivery—and I know that couriers are taking precautions like dropping food outside of doors—but why risk that? Everyone is just trying to hustle through this, I guess.

What Covid-related changes—operational or structural—have you had to make?
My number-one priority is my staff—I’m doing my best to figure out how to not lay them off. I’m waiting to see what benefits the government will offer—to see if there’s more incentive to help them with the aid they receive, rather than laying them off and going on EI, which wouldn’t be fair to the folks I’ve just hired. My staff is my family, I worry about them as much as I worry about my own son. I don’t want to risk their livelihood just because I may need to shut down. If I’m just doing takeout, I don’t need 15 people in the kitchen, but I want to give everyone a role so we can figure out how to get through this. We haven’t been in contact with our landlord; we’re all still waiting to find out what the government’s going to do for us. Hopefully renters and landlords will come to some kind of agreement which will benefit both sides.

What has the customer reaction been like so far? Have you been busy? Have people been tipping more?
There’s a lot of support. I’ve been doing a lot of the deliveries myself—we deliver between Eglinton and Lakeshore, Leslie to Kipling—so I’ve been dropping off provisions using my own car. Seeing our client base and how far it spans, it’s impressive. We don’t ask for tips, but people are tossing money at us in support—they want us to be here after this is over. A major goal is to be who we are now and all the way, right through to the end of this.

Have you had to change your menu to reflect the new reality?
A lot of our menu is fried food that I don’t feel comfortable sending out, because it’s best enjoyed in-house. We have a bunch of sandwiches that can get soggy over time, so they’re out, too. We’re simplifying our menu so that it’s a choice of meat with rice, salad and kimchee sides. Our main goal is not to waste food. I have so much produce, so much inventory that I don’t want to see in the garbage. It’s about more than losing money, it’s about the amount of waste that will occur if we don’t get this produce out to the public—and I’m just one restaurant of thousands.

How long do you think you can go on like this?
Our sales are 75 per cent alcohol, and that’s out of the picture. Honestly, it’s bleak, that’s what it looks like right now. It’s coming to the point where I’m contemplating taking a second mortgage out on my home just to keep this place. I see maybe two to three months with my backup finances just to get through this. I’ll obviously see a loss, there’s no gain coming out of this at all. My wife is also self-employed, she owns a baby clothing store, and nobody’s buying baby clothes right now.

I wish the government would give small business owners more direction—a way to prepare for what they’re going to do for us, instead of being on the edge of our seats having to scroll through the news to get information. When these businesses start having to shut down, we’re all out of work, we’re all going to be owing money—we’re fucked.

Julian Morana, Bar Volo and Birreria Volo

How does a largely dine-in business switch to a takeout operation?
It’s not easy. We have to be creative and at the same time execute it as safely as possible. Our only source of income is now our import agency, Keep6 Imports. Customers can order our wine and beer online, and we use Birreria Volo as a pickup destination for those who opt out of delivery.

What Covid-related changes—operational or structural—have you had to make?
For starters, we’ve had to close down both of our operations completely. We now have a table blocking our front door that we use as a loading dock for customers to retrieve their cases of beer or wine. During our pickup hours, we leave the front door open and they can call out their order number. I then grab the corresponding case and deliver it to the loading table.

What has the customer reaction been like so far?
Reactions remain positive. A lot of our customers don’t know we operate an online wine and beer shop. We have seen a minimal increase in sales, but at least it’s something.

Have you had to change your menu to reflect the new reality?
We’re exploring the idea of packaging antipasto, meats and cheeses. When people come by to pick up their wine or beer, they can buy some to go. But other than that, we don’t have many options on the table.

How long do you think you can go on like this?
Not long—our stock is almost depleted. We’re hesitant to order new products from our global suppliers and unsure if the LCBO will process these in a timely fashion for us to sustain this model. What we need is for the government to allow us to sell our wine and beer inventory to go. Temporarily allowing this would be a big win for the industry, which is something we desperately need right now.

Bryan Jackson, Starving Artist

How does a largely dine-in business switch to a takeout operation?
We fought takeout for a long time because our product is best made-to-order—you can’t really package the experience of being in a restaurant. So we know how to do takeout, but to go to takeout-only is tough—and we still worry whether we’ll be told to stop entirely. The first week was about adapting and putting out fires as we lost customers, then staff and then dine-in service. Uber Eats is only waiving the delivery charge for the customers, not our fees—that doesn’t really help us out. It’s Uber’s time to shine right now and show that they’re really our “business partner.” It’s a little bit frustrating because they’ve monopolized a lot of our business, and they’re the ones who will profit at a time like this. It’s kinda making me crazy because we’re depending on them. At this point I’m basically unemployed because I can’t pay myself when I have to maintain the restaurants and pay my staff.

What Covid-related changes—operational or structural—have you had to make?
We’re down to one or two staff at a time at each of our restaurants, and we closed our St. Clair location. Some of our staff went into self-isolation, while others have gone to live with their parents in places like Kingston and Windsor, so there weren’t enough people to keep it open. Operationally we’ve been lowering our staffing and trying not to burn a lot of electricity—everything we can do to reduce costs and defer, defer, defer.

What has the customer reaction been like so far? Have you been busy? Have people been tipping more?
We’ve got a pretty good regular customer base, but it’s still not enough to continue at this pace. Where we’d normally have hundreds of customers over the course of one weekend, we’ve had maybe 100 in the past week.

Have you had to change your menu to reflect the new reality?
It’s not like we’re selling a product that’s made for the masses, you know? We’re not a soup-and-salad place, so maybe we have to step out of that waffle world and make other kinds of food. Can we do it fast enough to make it viable? We’re doing what we can with the stuff that we have, because that’s what our customers know. Changing your menu means a whole bunch of other problems with training, consistency, food safety and new products—and all of that costs more money. The product we normally use over a weekend we’ve barely touched in the last week—we still have a month’s worth of food here. We’ve got a location across from a Wendy’s where people are lined up down the road, and we’re here like, “Hey, we can feed you at 10 o’clock in the morning, too!” We have a new $7 special—two eggs, a waffle, a side and a coffee—but we aren’t making money off it, and we can’t offer it through Uber Eats because we’d lose money.

How long do you think you can go on like this?
We’ve been experiencing difficulties ever since the minimum wage increase—our margins became so thin that we were worried one bad month might close us down. If we have to pay full rent and bills, we can make it maybe a month or two; if our rent is cut in half, then we have three to four months. If we don’t have to pay rent, we could last six months and maybe make it through this. Without everybody helping each other and being respectful of each other, we’re not going to last long. We’re not making enough on Uber Eats to keep our staff here—we’re trying to keep our most trusted full-time employees on as long as we can. Some of our landlords have been reasonable—some own restaurants themselves—and they understand because they may not be able to pay their own rent. If people don’t support their local businesses, those businesses will start dropping off. We take a lot of responsibility as restaurant owners: to feed customers, to pay staff, to pay landlords. It feels like we’re holding the torch right now. There’s no one to help us and we’re waiting for the government to step in. Our goal at the end of the day is to keep this brand going. Will we be seven stores strong? It’s too early to tell. Right now, it’s just one day at a time.