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“We had tens of thousands of dollars of food ready to go”: Six Toronto restaurateurs on how Omicron upended one of the busiest weeks of the year

Social media posts from Toronto restaurants have taken on an eerily familiar tone in recent days. “Due to rising case counts and an abundance of caution…” You know what follows: indefinite closures, extended holiday breaks and a return to the takeout-only business model. Again. Many restaurants, bars and cafés have scaled back operations during one of the most lucrative weeks on the restaurant calendar, prioritizing health and safety over profits in the face of Omicron. Here, restaurant owners discuss their thought processes behind making yet another tough call in yet another year of tough calls.

Victoria Bazan, owner of Honest Weight

“I decided to pause indoor dining and return to takeout- and retail-only on December 14, and announced it the following day. I wanted to ensure that our staff would make it through the holidays without potentially testing positive for Covid and having to isolate from their families. And I thought it would only be a matter of time until we were forced to close, and I wanted to take control of the situation for the sake of clarity. I needed to take the guesswork out of what we were going to do as a business. We deal with highly perishable products—fish, seafood—and I was determined to manage costs on my own terms.

It was relatively simple for me to make a swift decision, something governments can’t do given the impossible complexities of this crisis. I also felt strongly that the decision was mine to make and that I was not going to throw it up for debate among our staff and make them assume responsibility for it. The timing could not be worse—the last few weeks had been busy with the dining room full, and we were looking forward to more busy nights around the holidays. I had to cancel a lot of reservations. Financially, we will take another hit, but I’ve reassured the team that they will be paid for all the hours they were expecting to work over the holidays.”


 

Nicole Bilyea, owner of Coco’s

“We opened during the pandemic, which means we built our café business using the curbside model. But we were starting to get used to operating indoors. We disassembled our contactless curbside window booth in November and began taking orders inside, but we pushed off indoor dining until it felt right—and we never actually reached that point! The curbside window went back up on Dec. 19—when we were taking it down, we very much expected that this could happen again. We’ll roll with the punches. Our bottom line means nothing weighed against the safety of our staff. We’ve been prepared since the beginning to close if we have to, and pay everyone for two weeks should it be necessary.”


"We had tens of thousands of dollars of food ready to go": Six Toronto restaurateurs on how Omicron upended one of the busiest weeks of the year
Ascari King West Photo by Renée Suen
John Sinopoli, co-owner of Ascari Hospitality Group

“The decision to close for indoor dining was multifaceted. First it involved taking the temperature of our team members—both literally and figuratively—and asking them how they felt. They were getting nervous about contracting Covid before Christmas, so we decided this week to close Ascari Enoteca, Ascari King Street and Gare de L’est, while keeping Mercantino E Vini, our wine shop, and our commissary and events kitchen open to service our at-home meal kit offerings. Also, the 50 per cent capacity prevents us from turning a profit, and this time around there are no government subsidies.

My stomach is turning with nervous, terrible energy. I honestly don’t know how we’re going to get to the other side of this. The government needs to step up and reintroduce the small business grant program, and the proper wage and rent subsidies as they existed one year ago. We had tens of thousands of dollars worth of food in-house and ready to go for events this week. And paying our staff and suppliers has burned through the rest of our cash. How do we reopen? That costs more money—tens of thousands of dollars yet again—and we don’t have the capacity to take on more debt. Staying open at 50 per cent capacity means you lose money just by being open.”

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Emily LeBlanc, co-owner of Bar Mordecai

“We started rapid testing last week to mitigate some risks for our staff as we started to hear news of the omicron variant. I think the best comparison to how this feels is how it felt during the first lockdown, when the news was changing so quickly that our conversations kept evolving. But since last weekend, as more and more businesses started shutting their doors and disclosing that they had multiple cases in house, that was eye-opening. As we head towards the holidays, we wanted to make sure our staff could see their families. We wanted to keep our team and our guests safe.

Making the choice to close until January is a serious one—we’re impacting everyone’s livelihoods and our own financial future. Ultimately, it’s unclear what will happen as there’s been no real guidance yet from the provincial or federal governments about support. And there’s no timeline regarding how long the new rules about reduced capacity and hours of operation will be in place—we’re a cocktail bar, so we typically stay busy until 2 a.m. Coming on two years of this, no restaurant or bar can afford it anymore. We can’t continue to bleed the way we are. But everyone will do what they have to, to get through this. We know the drill.”


Dominic Amaral, owner Brock Sandwich

“I decided to close the shop until January because the numbers are too high, and it’s gotten too dangerous. I wanted to protect my staff and my family. Health is more important than money. As the numbers were creeping up we decided it was the best thing for us to do, and to do it early. Customers were being responsible when coming into the restaurant but all it takes is one cough and there you go, we’re done. It was quite liberating to shut down and no longer live in fear.

We have been preparing for this since August because we knew it was going to come. Once the omicron variant started spreading, we decided to stay calm, save our money, and know that with our loyal customers, we’ll be okay. In January, it’ll be pickup only until the numbers are reasonable. January is a tough month for our industry in general, so I’m not hopeful for January. But February would be a good time to start fresh and allow people back inside.”


Nick Liu, chef and co-owner Dailo

“We were already four people down because of staff coming in close contact with family members and roommates who had contracted covid, so we did the math and thought if we remained open, it was inevitable that somebody was going to get it. We decided to minimize the risk and spread and close the restaurant until the new year. It felt irresponsible to remain open. The hardest part was that we had so much momentum going into Christmas. Our sales have been through the roof.

The support from the city and our regulars, it’s been amazing since the vaccine passport came out. It’s the holidays and they are our biggest sales days of the year, but it’s just not worth getting anybody sick over. We need to keep this virus under control because we can’t afford to close for as long as we did during the first shutdown. So as much as we want to make money, we also want to spend time with our family and friends. This is the first time I get to actually enjoy Christmas in decades, and I’m looking forward to that.”

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