This is Part 1 of a two-part discussion with local restaurateurs where they talk about what they’ve learned during covid, and look ahead to 2021.
In normal times, year’s end usually prompts a series of reflective lists and “top ten” selections of events and experiences: 2020, however, is not a year to celebrate or look back on fondly.
Despite the pain and suffering; despite what might be unalterable changes to the restaurant landscape; despite a food and beverage industry that’s been hurt badly, there are positive steps and outcomes that can be taken away from our Covid-19 nightmare and used in the future: yes, Virginia there will be some sort of Christmas – and, yes, the restaurant industry is nothing if not adaptive and able to pivot, to use a popular new term.
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.
While she says that they have always considered themselves “proactive in our business,” Laura Umbrio, general manager of Proof Kitchen + Lounge in Waterloo, says Covid-19 has prompted them to act quickly to explore other revenue streams, including developing a more robust take-out and delivery business – something Umbrio says will continue.
“This experience, for lack of a better word, has compressed our processes into a really efficient model. From idea, to decisions, to plan to action, to review of efficacy, we have been able to implement ideas in record times,” Umbrio says.
A restaurant that traditionally had not put much focus on delivery and take-away business, Umbrio says that has changed since the summer – and will become a focus moving forward. “Those options for customers will become a permanent revenue stream for our operations. We’re giving it equal consideration in our strategy planning.”
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In New Hamburg, Janet Duncan and Klaus Ristanovic own and operate the small and very charming Jake and Humphreys’ Bistro. Their longer range plans for the business have been possibly altered because of the pandemic, according to Duncan, but there have been useful outcomes that they will continue to adopt as their business moves forward. Duncan, not a fan of boxing up food for take-out, “for it to steam away with the demiglace congealing,” as she puts it, does see a potential change to maintain.
“We did cut the menus down a lot in size,” she says. “It’s conceivable that we might keep that aspect in play even into the vaccinated future. We’ll keep the core items that sell well and experiment with specials.”
With venues in Waterloo near the St. Jacobs Market and in downtown Kitchener, Crazy Canuck co-owner Freddy Hayes says the restaurants have changed but that they’re taking it day by day currently. This fall they launched a new menu that has popular catering and feature items, according to Hayes.
“We have transitioned to daily deals, like $9.99 taco pizza on Tuesdays, for instance. We want to stay fresh giving our customers lots of options,” he says.
At his Cambridge diner – a Preston institution serving customers for 70 years – chef-owner Josh Hayward says that the Cambridge Restaurant has maintained a certain equilibrium during the pandemic and has been greatly assisted by a boost through their take-out and “Parking Lot Pick-up” business. It’s something the restaurant will rely on in the near and far future with some customers possibly feeling a twinge of unease while sitting in a busy dining room – even post-vaccine.
“We will continue to push our popular pickup and probably continue to adapt the menu as the social climate changes,” Hayward says. “While I could definitely see our dining room being as packed with tables like it once was, we’ll make sure we have enough space for everyone to feel comfortable and safe in the environment.”
Shan Bricker, co-owner with Marissa Mansz of Lana’s Lounge near Wilfrid Laurier University, notes that while it is difficult to plan for the 100-year storm, the restaurant and music space had a “cushion” in its business plan.
“But nobody could have predicted the pandemic,” Bricker then adds quickly. “Much has turned virtual. We built the Lana’s concept around a full experience for the distinguishing diner. That’s music, a strong menu, great libations, attentive service and a unique vibe.”
But with many customers choosing not to visit dine-in spaces, Lana’s has adapted shows to be both live and live-broadcast online – that’s free with take-out. “That has been the greatest opportunity embraced as a result of Covid-19,” says Bricker.
In these cases, the silver lining has indeed been a lifeline for many businesses as they hope – and we with them – things get better.
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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.