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This is Part 2 of a two-part discussion with local restaurateurs where they talk about what they’ve learned during covid, and look ahead to 2021.
How do you find a ‘silver lining’ in a year that has wreaked havoc on an industry you’ve put your heart and soul into – in this case, the restaurant industry? One of the biggest lessons learned in the year that was 2020 is just how adaptive and innovative our restaurant community is, making changes that, in many cases, will remain long after the pandemic is over.
We checked in with several Waterloo Region restaurateurs and other food operations to see what kind of changes might represent a new normal in the future.
A long-time restaurateur in Waterloo Region, Brian Plouffe has adopted a wait-and-see attitude in the current dining-in and dining-out milieu: some concepts remain tentative; others are full-bore, he says when it comes to his popular and ever-evolving Uptown Waterloo restaurant King Street Trio (KST).
Perhaps most notably, Plouffe says that the restaurant will adopt permanently the decision to shorten the venue’s hours and will likely not re-open Mondays in order to focus on only dinner Tuesday to Saturday. His kitchen, led by chef Kyle Rennie, can focus on menu adjustments and five dinner services a week.
“The less-is-more mantra is where we are coming from here,” Plouffe says.
“Our pivot was to do the Trio Takeaway and finish-at-home concept, though it was a stop-gap measure to get us through difficult times. We are undecided as to whether this is a long-term program, however.”
In-house at KST has seen a lot of adaptations, too, including what he refers to as “ever changing” weekly dinner menus with a clear focus on seasonality. “I would say that this will continue in some form. There may still be a core menu, but the weekly changes are being very well received,” Plouffe notes.
A restaurant with a capacity for 90 guests pre-Covid-19, he adds that having reduced seating will likely stay too. “In this learning curve, we would be more aware that 60 seats may serve us better in the post-vaccine future than, say, more than that.”
The restaurant has re-vamped its wine list to offer more European labels and higher-end vintages, and they purchased an additional wine cooler so that all bottles can be held at temperature. Plouffe says that more than ever “the future” will be about an enhanced KST visit for his customers. “We basically have decided that we will focus on a very high-value experience rather than volume of guests,” Plouffe says.
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On the food-truck front, despite being among the first food operators back in action this spring and summer – thanks to their outdoor operation – these Waterloo Region food entrepreneurs have learned how to adapt as well. Many have allied themselves with outdoor patios that have a need for food service: just one example is Josh Perovic of Hemlock Street Burger Bar and his food truck which rolled up alongside the patio at Together We’re Bitter brewery on Mill Street Kitchener. It was match made in beer-and-burger heaven.
A philosophical note was struck by food-truck comrade Paul McGough of S.W.A.T. Food Truck – an operator, like many others, who readily helped out our frontline workers by visiting facilities such as the Freeport Campus of Grand River Hospital.
“In reflection, I think the thing I learned the most is that there is nothing more important than making every guest feel they are the most important visitor to your business at that moment,” McGough says. “The pandemic has taught us that we need to cherish every moment.”
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At Oakridge Acres on Greenfield Road in Ayr, co-owner Cindy Gerber says they will continue to offer their popular and contactless “porch pick up,” where customers can send in their orders and pay ahead of pickup.
“When the customer arrives to pick up, they call, pop the trunk and an Oakridge Acres staff puts their order in the vehicle,” says Gerber. “We’ve found that this process, which started with the pandemic, seems to bring great comfort to a group of our customers. I would image we would continue to offer this to those who appreciate the service.”
Shawerma Plus Waterloo hasn’t been open for in-store dining since April – their focus has been online and on the customer experience. Seemingly endless tweaks and iterations have been Jawad Ghabra’s mantra, and he’s focusing on building loyalty in the face of the charges that restaurants face from third-party delivery apps.
“We will continue to analyze news and experts and consider those insights which we have learned during the pandemic,” Ghabra says. “We are staying focused and positive as there are many challenges. Our mindset shouldn’t be one of those challenges moving forward though.”
Mezze dishes from Shawerma PlusIn New Hamburg, Puddicombe House took considerably guarded steps in their approach to re-opening with its individual greenhouses and air purifiers. On deck are “dining domes” for winter – and for when restrictions allow once again. Co-owner Nick Cressman says he’s dedicated to making guests feel safe – at all times.
“I think we are going to keep on making more improvements to the winter patio, so we can continue with the concept in the future,” he says. “We have a few different ideas on how the concept is going to look in the winter months to keep things interesting.”
In the kitchen, the menu has been overhauled and even some favourite items removed in order to tweak the restaurant and nudge it toward a more Italian influence. He sums it up in way that takes the pandemic bull by the horns with some forcefulness.
“We probably did the opposite of a lot of places and made a lot of bold decisions,” Cressman says. “If I learned anything over the pandemic, it’s that you can’t be afraid of change.”
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Andrew Coppolino is a writer-broadcaster, and is a food columnist with CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. Following a stint as a cook at a restaurant in Kitchener, Andrew chose to work with food from the other side of the kitchen pass. As a food writer, he is dedicated to promoting and nurturing culinary businesses and advocating for local chefs and restaurants. Andrew’s work has been published in newspapers and magazines across Canada, the United States and England.