Fine dining spots doing takeout. Chefs prepping cook-at-home packaged meals. Curbside pickups and delivery services. To say that the restaurant industry underwent a seismic shift due to COVID-19 would be an understatement.
A seismic shift leaves permanent changes behind. Restaurateurs have had time to take stock of their businesses. Some have adopted new practices that will become part of the new normal going forward. We asked those involved in the Edmonton restaurant industry to tell us how they see their businesses changing, for good.
Before COVID-19, it was commonplace to see restaurants open six or seven days a week. Some spots closed on Mondays, others didn’t at all.
But, for those working those long hours, the time at home has given some pause for reflection. Some chefs are remembering what it’s like to spend time with their families. There is time to decompress. And there’s time to take a hard look at the books and wonder why your restaurant opens its doors on some weekday evenings, when many tables are empty. Or maybe Sunday nights aren’t working out.
“We have decided to close one day a week in efforts to provide all our staff with moreshifts by cutting down on the amount of over-all staff required to operate,” says Christian Mena, owner of Sabor and the Bodega family of restaurants in Edmonton and St. Albert.
“We’re not going to go back to being open seven days a week,” says Ed Donszelmann, the owner of Otto Food and Drink. “I’ve realized that I missed the balance in my life. We’ll drop down to five days a week.”
Think back to this time a year ago. Remember how angry we all were about plastic straws and excess plastic packaging? All it takes is one pandemic for us to flock back to individually wrapped items and heat-sealed packs.
Donszelmann says that Otto tried take-out for a week, when restaurants had to be closed for service, but “that was too scary. It didn’t feel safe.” Otto then went to selling vacuum-sealed sausages to prepare at home. He thinks that business will continue, and that heated takeout will be a thing that won’t go away for restaurants.
“The takeout service we have provided during this lockdown time period has now been fully ingrained into our business model, hence we will continue putting efforts into amalgamating it with our dine-in service,” says Mena.
“I predict there will be a sustained focus on take-out, delivery and more reliance on technology with regards to food sales,” says Caitlin Fulton, who owns RGE RD with her partner, Blair Lebsack. “Online accessibility is key to survival. Instagram has become more important than ever as a platform through which we communicate and sell.”
Fulton says that the prices for plastics and sanitation items have gone up through the course of the pandemic, putting more pressure on restaurant owners.
“We’ve gone from a restaurant that was working toward a zero-waste model pre-COVID-19 to investing heavily in all kinds of packaging. We’ve watched as the price of all these items has steadily increased. We’ve been on months long wait lists for items such as soap/hand sanitizer dispensers. We’ve been quoted outrageous prices for disposable non-medical face masks. We never anticipated that items like plastic spray bottles would suddenly be difficult to procure.”
Dining rooms had to close in the spring, but don’t think these businesspeople just sat at home. It gave them time to rethink their business plans, remodel their buildings and come up with ideas on how to serve people in a socially distant world.
“This lockdown period has afforded us the time to renovate and even add to some of our spaces and really take time to streamline our business models, thereby enabling us to provide the customer with what we hope will be a better experience going forward,” says Mena.
And RGE RD created a winemaker’s night, on Zoom. Lebsack curated the meal live, with winemakers Zooming in virtually from around the world. The first such event sold out. While many of us got used to curbside pickups or calling for delivery services during the pandemic, the restaurateurs are confident that their businesses can rebound. A lot of local eateries offer great take-out options, but eating out of a box will never replace the experience of a night out at a great restaurant — the atmosphere, the service.
But service has changed. Fulton says RGE RD has gone to a more “mise en place” style of service, so the customer has fewer face-to-face interactions with servers. Restaurants that served meals in large serving bowls, meant for sharing, have had to commit to individual entrees. “The menu is different.,” says Fulton. “We have removed all sharing dishes from our menu — everything will be individually plated.”
“It will be a while before all people are comfortable to sit in a restaurant again,” says Donszelmann, so he understands that bringing customers back to the dine-in experience is a
“I firmly believe that the customer’s time away from the experience of in-house dining has renewed their appreciation for restaurant dining and we, as restaurateurs, have certainly missed our patrons,” says Mena. “This hopefully will help create an atmosphere of greater respect and appreciation between restaurant and patron with the idea of uplifting the industry.”
“I feel optimistic,” says Fulton. “From what I’ve observed, most people’s behaviours have been readily modified in the interest of public health and safety. I hope in opening our doors to the public, our guests continue to demonstrate willingness to participate and adjust to a new paradigm with respect to keeping fellow citizens safe.”
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This article appears in the October 2020 issue of Edify