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Food & Drink

“The third lockdown was the perfect storm”: Why this restaurant decided to halt its takeout business and take a 28-day break

By Adrian Niman
"The third lockdown was the perfect storm": Why this restaurant decided to halt its takeout business and take a 28-day break
Photo by Ted Chai

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Food & Drink

“I spent $40,000 to get my outdoor patio up and running—and most of it went down the toilet:" A Toronto restaurateur on reopening the day before going back into lockdown

Despite the global pandemic, Rasa found success last year thanks to a thriving takeout business, street-side patio and some extra creativity. But 2021 has been far from a smooth ride. Stagnating takeout orders, frustrating—and inconsistent—regulations and pervasive Covid fatigue have taken their toll on the Food Dudes’ crown jewel. Here, Adrian Niman, the company’s executive chef, explains why they decided to shut the business down for 28 days during the third lockdown, and what he expects from the rest of the year.

—As told to Jacob Rutka

“Looking back, we were actually lucky during the early days of the pandemic. Rasa opened for takeout right away—even though we’d never done takeout before—when a lot of our favourite restaurants in the city had completely shut down for health and safety reasons, or to take a break and wait to see what would come next.

We kept on a small team that was willing to work, we moved staff over from our sister spot Sara to help with the volume, we created a safe environment and we had tremendous support from the community. And our other restaurants were killing it. Blondies, our takeout-only pizza business, was skyrocketing. Pizza is pandemic-proof, and we’ve even been able to open a couple more locations over the past year.

And Rasa was doing really well. We’d figured out how to engineer our dishes so they travelled—some things like the chopped salad held up, others like the gnudi we had to take off the menu. We kept the burger cooked medium and added really crispy fries. And the patio was bumping as well. That all lasted until they announced the second lockdown.

Since January, things have really stagnated. I don’t know, maybe people are tired of takeout or delivery. Maybe they’re cooking more at home. But we’ve noticed a big drop in sales at Rasa—almost half of what we did over a similar time period last year. In fact, 2021 has been hard for the whole company. Food Dudes and Pantry typically do more than $20 million annually. Since the pandemic started, we’ve had $2 million in sales and that was largely thanks to a contract to supply breakfast, lunch and dinner to the NHL teams when the hockey bubble was here last year. In 2021, we’ve only done about $500 thousand in sales, so you can understand how much this hurts from an operational standpoint.

About a month ago, we felt like there was light at the end of the tunnel when the provincial government announced that patios would be opening back up. That was great, but they gave us just 48 hours notice to reopen. Rasa is a fine-dining restaurant. We pride ourselves on our seasonal menu. And we wanted to make sure everything was safe for our staff. So that was more like a 10-to-14-day process for us. Twelve days after that get-your-patio-ready announcement, we’d launched a big, new, beautiful menu. And then the government said that everything was closing back down again. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Adam Minster, my business partner and the general manager at both Rasa and Sara, spoke to our head chefs and our team and asked what they wanted to do. They all just said that they were fed up, that they were sick of doing takeout. They didn’t force our hand, but essentially, they said they wanted to take a 28-day break to cope with the physical and mental health strains that have accumulated over the past year.

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We answered the call and, no question, it’s the best thing we could have done for our staff. When people decide to work in a fine-dining restaurant, they don’t sign up for putting food in takeout containers. These are individuals who’ve made sacrifices, working 12-hour days, giving up their social life on the weekend. There’s a real labour of love and passion that goes into the menu at Rasa, and I really consider our chefs artists. But in speaking with them, the word that comes to mind is defeated—and I think this extends to everyone in our industry.

Ultimately, we look to the government for guidance in these times. And I really feel like they’ve failed us. For them to keep saying “open, close, open, close,” you have no idea what that does to the psyche of business operators and their employees. As an entrepreneur, all I’m asking for is consistent leadership. I’m not here to debate what’s best, because I don’t know what that is—even though I really don’t think it’s restaurant patios that are spreading this virus like wildfire.

We’ve been willing to try anything to make this work. Late last year, when we thought year-round outdoor dining might be on the table, we were prepared to put $30,000 towards winterizing our patio. We even thought about launching our own takeout and delivery platform so we didn’t have to give Uber Eats part of our profits.

But the third lockdown was the perfect storm. We looked at the financials, and if we were to pay off all our supplier debt, our HST, the commission to Uber, and balance out how we can gracefully take advantage of the subsidy provided by the government, we still weren’t profiting as a restaurant. So why would we even bother to stay open?

Our staff are everything to us. They’ve worked their tails off. Cooks and chefs need creativity. And we’ve tried to promote their growth wherever we can. Corey, our sous chef at Rasa, worked in south Florida for three years and told us he was really passionate about barbecue. So we did a “Corey’s BBQ” campaign at Rasa where he was in charge, we took a backseat, and the support from our customers was amazing. My junior sous chef at Sara, Keanu, came up with a Filipino pop-up called Kusinera. I’ve seen so many of our chefs envision these amazing concepts, and our plan moving forward is to celebrate new ideas and support them any way we can. In the meantime, we’ve got a reserve fund that we’re using as a top-up to the government subsidy. We’re trying to stay on top of their mental health needs.

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I’m hopeful that the government will do the right thing and let restaurants open their patios for good as more people are vaccinated and as the Covid case count drops. As the leader of Food Dudes, I’m going to do everything in my power to help all of our places get through this and to make sure they can all open back up in a way that’s safe for our staff and our customers.

Ultimately, I’m just so grateful to live in Toronto. People in this city have been so supportive of restaurants and small businesses. I can’t stress that enough. When we announced we were stopping takeout at Rasa, I didn’t want people to feel that it had anything to do with us not being grateful for the overwhelming support. It’s more about us putting our foot down, listening to our staff and giving them a much-needed break, and in May, reassessing what comes next. I’m excited to celebrate our chefs and their creative ideas. To be successful right now, you’ve got to be constantly innovating, and that’s what we’ll keep doing.”

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