“We got 4,100 reservation requests in less than five hours”: Toronto’s nightclub king, Charles Khabouth, on re-opening the city’s biggest patio

“We got 4,100 reservation requests in less than five hours”: Toronto’s nightclub king, Charles Khabouth, on re-opening the city’s biggest patio

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Covid-19 hit Toronto’s bar and restaurant scene like a ton of bricks, and few understand the impact of that better than Charles Khabouth. Back in March, the city’s most celebrated nightlife impresario shut down all 23 of his venues, and laid off 2,600 employees. His reopening plan includes Cabana Waterfront Patio, a pandemic-friendly version of the previous pool bar (plus plenty of social distance, minus the white-bikini-clad servers). Here, Khabouth talks to Toronto Life about his new venue, his weather obsession and why summer 2020 is the ultimate pressure cooker.

You’re reopening the city’s largest patio today. After more than three months of lockdown, how are you feeling?
I’d say I’m a lot more optimistic today than I was two or three weeks ago. I’m excited to get to work and to be able to welcome back a lot of our staff. When we learned that patios were going to be able to open first, we knew we had a big opportunity with Cabana, but we also knew we had to make some changes. The pool bar is a really social place. People come there to drink and dance—sometimes shoulder to shoulder on a busy day. Obviously that wasn’t going to work with the new restrictions. The only safe way to reopen is with seating areas where people are confined to their spaces—unless they’re going to the washroom. Before, we had a 2,500-person capacity. Now, it’s just over 400. We’ve had to totally reconfigure the space, reinvent the menu and retrain staff. It’s been time consuming and a huge financial investment—we spent around $300,000. It’s really like opening a brand-new business.

Will there still be a pool? Will the servers still be in bikinis?
Our waitstaff has new uniforms to suit the new concept: white shorts and white T-shirts. The pool is still here; it’s beautiful and it’s heated. I don’t know if people are going to want to swim before they sit down for dinner, but if it’s allowed, that’s great. At this point, I’m still waiting to hear what the rules are. Honestly, it’s really confusing. Like, groups are supposed to be five people or fewer unless they’re in the same bubble, in which case it can be up to 10 people. How am I supposed to know who’s in whose bubble?

Charles Khabouth has more to smile about now that Toronto is in Phase 2

A lot of bars have banned singing and dancing. It’s like something out of Footloose! Where do you stand?
Ha! That’s actually a new city bylaw. We’ve definitely been joking about it a lot in the industry. I get where they’re coming from and what the point is, but it’s also a bit ridiculous. How am I supposed to enforce that? Obviously we don’t want people leaving their areas, or endangering other customers but if someone starts singing at their table, do I kick them out? Come on.

$300K is a lot of money. What in particular did you spend it on?
We had to buy all new tables and some new chairs. You can’t find a good chair for less than $80 and when you need 300 of them—and then you need more umbrellas—it adds up. We’ve spent a lot on disinfectant, setting up sanitizing stations and doubling up the number of washroom attendants. In the ladies bathroom we’re having someone wipe the seats down every time a guest exits a stall. The same goes for tables and chairs every time a party leaves. We had to buy PPE for all of the staff, and it’s not cheap because we don’t want our customers to feel like they’re hanging out in a hospital. At all of my venues, the staff will wear colour-coordinated masks: light blue for Cabana, deep red at Sofia.

You also have a brand new menu. What’s on it?
Oliver and Bonacini is doing the food. It’s a lot of classic summer dishes: salads, sandwiches and then at dinner blackened salmon, filet mignon. We’ve got watermelon skewers, we’re doing sushi on the weekend. It’s going to be great—as long as the weather cooperates. Patios are great as an extension of a restaurant, but to have that as your entire business? I wake up every day praying for sun. I check the Weather Network app, and then we also have one staff member who—along with their other duties— is responsible for monitoring cloud movement. Weather reports are useful, but they’re not always specific. Sometimes it’s pouring in Brampton, but beautiful downtown or the other way around.

Glass noodle salad, one of the new menu items

Do you think people might just be so desperate to get out that they’ll come rain or shine?
I do think that people are eager to get out and socialize. You could tell me it was going to snow tomorrow, and after three months of isolation, I would want to be on a patio. We have a lot of umbrellas, so if we do get rain I think some people will stay, but it’s not ideal. I have staff coming in every morning to prep 1,000 meals. If it starts pouring, we’re going to lose thousands of dollars. It’s a lot of risk and absolutely zero control. The more I talk about it, the more I wonder what I’m doing. But on the other hand, I want to get back to work. I want my staff to get back to work.

Covid is far from over. Along with bad weather, might safety concerns keep people home?
I think a lot of people are still very worried about the virus. But I can also tell you that the response we’ve gotten has been unbelievable. We opened our reservation system a couple of days ago and got 4,100 reservations in just five hours. That’s more than double what we could accommodate and we’re booked solid well into July. And it’s not just us. I guarantee the patios we have in Toronto won’t be able to handle the demand.

A lot of experts are saying that outside of a hospital, a nightclub is probably the least-safe place on the planet. Safe to say people won’t be doing the Toosie Slide your dance floors anytime soon?
Definitely not. A nightclub is a nightclub. People won’t want to dance in social-distance circles. We’re trying to figure out ways to pivot. Next month we’re launching CityView Drive-In, an outdoor venue for concerts and movies. We’re building it right now in the parking lot across from Cabana. It will fit 250 cars, every other parking space. With our bigger spaces like Rebel and Toybox, we’re thinking about doing something like old-school dinner theatres, where people come and have dinner and watch a show. But obviously that’s only when we’re allowed to welcome guests inside again. We’re doing our best to stay ahead of the curve. It’s challenging, but I’m not one to sit on my hands.

The signature Hot Cabana Margarita

You don’t sound like a guy who is very well suited to social isolation. What were the past few months like for you?
It was bad. At one point I was so sick of being at home that I got into my car and drove. It was a Saturday night around 9 p.m. and I was driving on King Street. It was dead. Nobody was out walking around and all of the businesses had their lights out. I did a U-turn and came home. It was just too depressing. I definitely watched a lot of Netflix. Every night at 6:30, I would make popcorn and watch Netflix for four or five hours until I fell asleep. I watched the entire Homeland series and then a bunch of fun, entertaining movies. I watched The Hangover

You’d never seen The Hangover?
No, I had seen it. But I watched it again. I watched it twice, actually. It’s just fun and light. I heard that a lot of people were watching movies about pandemics. What’s wrong with them? I don’t want to see that. I want to watch things that are uplifting and positive.

Will you be lounging poolside today? Or are you too busy behind the scenes?
I’ve definitely got a lot going on with all of my openings, so I’ll be spending the next few days checking in on all of them. I’ve never been big on eating or drinking at my own places—nobody wants to see the owner sitting around drinking and hanging out when the restaurant is slammed. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression. And I’m happy when I’m working, so it’s good.