“This stuff isn’t going away”: Five restaurateurs on how the pandemic has permanently changed their businesses

“This stuff isn’t going away”: Five restaurateurs on how the pandemic has permanently changed their businesses

As pandemic-era dining restrictions begin to ease, restaurants across the city are every bit as eager to welcome guests as diners are eager to enjoy a meal outside their own homes. But while many restaurants are keen to get back to some version of normal, a number of adjustments born during the pandemic are likely here to stay. Here, five pandemic pivots that are shaping the immediate future of how we eat and drink.

Special-occasion takeout is the new normal


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A post shared by Ascari Hospitality Group (@ascarihg)

We’ve been through two Mother’s Days, two Father’s Days, two Easters, two Passovers, one Thanksgiving, and one Christmas during the pandemic—so far. For such special occasions, Toronto restaurants filled the gap that might normally be occupied by a prime reservation with takeout meal kits: pre-prepared (or finish-at-home) coursed dinners meant to approximate the restaurant feeling at home.

The Ascari Hospitality Group (Ascari, Ascari Enoteca, Gare De L’Est) plans to keep up with these fancy takeout meals even as restaurants begin to resume some form of pre-pandemic operations. “It’s really opened customers’ eyes to how enjoyable it is to have restaurants do all the heavy lifting,” says Erik Joyal, Ascari’s president. “And it makes you look good, as a host. This stuff isn’t going away.”

Joyal says that Ascari will be offering special at-home Thanksgiving and Christmas meal kits to customers this fall and winter, no matter what happens to in-person dining between now and then. “And we’ll do regular meal kits, brunch kits, you name it,” he says. “The pandemic has really shifted and broadened the way customers can shop from and engage with restaurants, and we don’t see any reason to claw that back.”

So, too, has the pandemic shifted the way restaurants sell food: pre-Covid, Ascari had no online ordering infrastructure, but now sells pantry items from Mercatino e Vini (the stand-alone grocer and wine shop Ascari opened in Leslieville earlier this year) and meal kits from its various restaurants through Shopify. That’ll stay too. “If you had told me a year ago that we, as a restaurant group, would be doing e-commerce,” Joyal says, “I would’ve told you that you have to get your head examined. But now it’s part of what we do.”

Restaurants are gourmet food shops

One of the most widespread pivots made by restaurants during the pandemic was the switch from dining establishment to larders. Across the city, restaurants, bars and cafés began selling pantry items, meat, produce and, in some cases, canned and bottled goods made on-site.

At Barberian’s, the six-decade-old Elm Street steakhouse, the decision to begin selling grocery items was a matter not only of necessity, but of timing. When widespread restaurant lockdowns first hit in March 2020, the steakhouse had just purchased $100,000 worth of meat. “We couldn’t just give it away,” says Barberian’s events manager Victoria Colbeck. Instead, the restaurant launched the Barberian’s Butcher Shop, selling the prime, aged cuts of meat that have made the steakhouse famous. In addition to steak, customers can purchase house-made appetizers and sides, plus weekly meal kits, and wines from the restaurant’s formidable cellar.

While plenty of early business came from established clientele, Colbeck said launching a new business model required the restaurant to do something it hasn’t had to do for decades: advertise. “We didn’t realize the power of social media,” Colbeck says. “We’ve never really had to use it, because we’ve always just had generations of repeat customers.” As a result, Barberian’s is reaching a whole new demographic that may not have otherwise visited the Elm Street institution.

Currently, Barberian’s preps its butcher shop offerings from the same kitchen it uses for in-person dining, but that’s about to change: the restaurant is shopping for a stand-alone location for Barberian’s Butcher Shop, where it will be able to expand its butcher program beyond steaks, and operate as a full-service butcher shop and larder year-round—and indefinitely.

To-go cocktails are an entirely new revenue stream


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In the early days of the pandemic, the Ontario government allowed licensed establishments to begin selling to-go beer, wine and spirits. For restaurants unsure if they could survive on takeout sales alone, it was a welcome boost. But for bars, who rely even more heavily on booze sales to make ends meet, it was their only lifeline. By fall, the government relaxed booze regulations even more to allow for the sale of bottled cocktails. “As soon as we were allowed to bottle cocktails, we got into it,” says Farzam Fallah, who oversees the cocktail programs at Marben and its downstairs speakeasy, the Cloak Bar. “We get a lot of regulars, and we wanted to be able to supply them with their favourite drinks.” And now that the government has said to-go libations are here to stay, Marben and the Cloak Bar are making their bottled tipples a permanent fixture.

Fallah’s bottled cocktails—like a rye manhattan made with pandan-infused vermouth, or the Metronom, a Fallah original made of aged grappa, brandy, rye, vermouth, Drambuie and chocolate bitters—are meant to improve with age. Fallah prepares each cocktail in batches of 12, once a week; each 200-mL bottle contains two cocktails, perfect for a couple of afternoon drinks in the park for those who are seeking a tall-can alternative, or for bringing a little something special to a backyard dinner or birthday party. There are generally about 10 different types of to-go cocktails available at any time.

For Fallah, the program has allowed him to be creative with his libations in ways that go beyond glassware and garnishes: he also designed the bottles’ labels, which he says “convey the personality of the bars. It’s been a great way to not only allow me to come up with new recipes, but also to keep the brand popping up online throughout the lockdown.” And now that restrictions have lifted to allow in-person dining, each bar’s in-person drinks program will be, for the most part, completely different from their to-go offerings—all the more reason to stop in for a sip, then grab a little something for the road.

Bars have become bottle shops


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In April 2020, Jeff Caires, owner of Bloordale bar the 47, says he had two options: “Open a bottle shop, or close up forever.” He chose the latter. In May, he reopened the 47—previously a bar and small plates restaurant—as a full-time bottle shop, rebranding it Fourth and Seven, “basically to prevent people from coming in and asking if we serve food.”

“For the first two or three months, we had people coming and asking us for gnocchi and rabbit rillettes,” Caires said. “And we were just constantly telling people, no, that’s never coming back.”

Fourth and Seven takes a page out of Caires’ previous playbooks from both the 47 and Tequila Bookworm, the Queen West mainstay he owned until its closure in 2019. Both bars were craft-beer forward, and Caires has leveraged the relationships he has with breweries across the province to stock Fourth and Seven with cans and bottles that, prior to the pandemic, were basically unavailable to individual consumers. “The way these small brewers work is that they’ll bang out new beers every week, they sell out of them, and then it’s on to the next one,” Caires explains. “That doesn’t work for the LCBO.” So while Torontonians have long had access to limited-run craft beers from breweries in the city, purchasing such beers from out-of-town breweries had, before the province adjusted its alcohol retail laws, only been possible when dining in a restaurant, or by visiting the breweries themselves. Fourth and Seven’s permanent pandemic pivot is not only a gear shift for Caires; it’s also indicative of a sea change in the way consumers are now able to access craft beer in the city, and across the province.

“When you go to other places, like Montreal or New York City or really all of Europe—we didn’t reinvent any wheels here,” Caires says. “It’s just that this province had liquor laws that were still in place from the 1920s. There is still a bit of sticker shock for people, because we have some beers that are $10 a can, and people are accustomed to LCBO prices. But we have $3 cans, too.”

Making the change to a full-time bottle shop required some staffing changes for Caires, and a little bit of interior reorganizing. But he says the relief he felt in shifting his business model from a bar and restaurant to a retail operation was palpable, and immediate. “First, we avoided the never-ending headache of wondering if we were going to get locked down, and and for how long,” he says. “And then there’s just the never-ending headache of running a restaurant itself. Now, we’re open when we’re open, and we have what we have. That’s it.”

Prioritizing dining over eating
Jonathan Nicolaou and Chris White outside 20 Victoria. (Photo by Daniel Neuhaus)

When Chris White and Jonathan Nicolaou closed Brothers, the lauded Yorkville restaurant they operated from 2017 until last year, the city’s fine-dining fans mourned—but White says the shutdown was a blessing in disguise. “I keep saying this, and I think it’s truer every day: it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us, in a weird way,” White says. “We got two years to think about how we want to do work, and what we want to do, and how we want to feel about it. We’re just young enough to think running a restaurant is still fiscally responsible. So why not do it however we want?”

White and Nicolaou had been sitting on a space at 20 Victoria Street, right downtown, since June of 2020. When they opened up their new restaurant, 20 Victoria, in June of this year, they were ardently committed to doing things their way, for the love of eating out: no table numbers, no seat numbers and, most notably, no time limits. “Time limits just run counter to what we’re actually doing here,” says White. “You can’t take care of people and kick them out at the same time.”

During the pandemic, most restaurants offering patio dining service (and indoor service, during the brief windows when that was permissible) imposed strict, short time limits on patrons: fewer tables, due to capacity restrictions, meant fewer opportunities to seat diners, and time limits allowed restaurants to rotate their tables more frequently. White says that the decision to scrap such limits at 20 Victoria is born partly of the information fatigue most restaurants (and diners) have felt over the last year and a half, as they attempt to navigate (and re-navigate) the rules imposed by the province. “Restaurants have had to be constantly online explaining their rules and policies,” he says. “I don’t feel that I want to read any of it, and I don’t want to write it. You’re going to come for dinner. It’s dinner. That’s it.”

The permanent pivot to no-limits dining is also an attempt, on the part of the team at 20 Victoria, to allow their customers to completely re-immerse themselves in an experience that has been mostly absent for more than a year. “The pandemic really showed us that eating and dining are two different things,” White says. After a year of eating, 20 Victoria is giving patrons the chance to make up for as much lost dining time as they like.