B.C. 2.0.: Some restaurants have died. The survivors must adapt to a different dining-out experience

Those that survive in what was already a tough business are trying to serve up optimism.

Credit: Pizzeria Tratto

Penticton’s Pizzeria Tratto is being cautious about opening its dining room again

Those that survive in what was already a tough business are trying to serve up optimism

Pizzeria Tratto opened in Penticton in November 2019–”the worst time of the year in any city, unless you’re in Barbados,” quips owner Chris Royal. But despite launching in the chill of the off-season (in a small Okanagan city, no less), the Neapolitan pizza joint found unprecedented success. The room was buzzing Tuesday to Sunday–staff took Mondays off–and Royal, his team and their traditional domed oven worked tirelessly to keep up. The community’s response was so overwhelming that Tratto discouraged patrons from getting takeout on Fridays and Saturdays. Carryout was on the periphery; emphasis was on the atmosphere.

That all changed on March 17, when Tratto closed as part of the provincewide lockdown on dining out. The next day, it reopened–for takeout only. “We had a fairly slow first week; everybody was very confused as to what was going on,” Royal says of the switch. But locals soon got the hang of it, and by mid-May, Tratto had tripled its weekly carryout orders. Royal says the business went through two 10-foot pallets of pizza boxes in three months. His restaurant is luckier than many others, he admits: “We serve pizza…so it’s easy on our part to make that pivot.” Tratto had to lay off 60 percent of its staff in mid-March, but all employees are now back on payroll.

For other B.C. eateries, the shift hasn’t been quite as smooth. “It’s been a disaster–a crisis,” says Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association (BCRFA). Tostenson explains that many restaurants run at about a 4-percent margin. “They were likely highly leveraged going into this,” he explains, “so there was very little room to be able to sustain any sort of business interruption.” COVID-19 exacerbated problems that have been brewing for years: Tostenson names rising rent, property taxes, the employer health tax, increasing minimum wage, utilities and the carbon tax. “Restaurants were getting frustrated because of the inability to make money, even when it was busy,” he says. He estimates that 30 percent of the 15,000 restaurants in B.C. will close permanently due to the pandemic.

While some establishments have cautiously reopened their dining rooms (major players like Joey Restaurant Group and Earls Restaurants did so in May, stressing mandatory employee health checks, physical distancing and sanitization), Royal says Tratto is being extra careful for two reasons: the age of the locals and the approaching tourist season. “People are going to travel, regardless of whether they are supposed to or not,” he says, “and that doesn’t bode well for Penticton,” where the median age is 52. Weighing the risks that reopening could bring for a particularly vulnerable population is tough, he adds: “I’m not worried about tourism in terms of my business–not as much as the idea of having an outbreak here that we aren’t capable of controlling.”

Royal is also conscious of the effect that a rigid reservation system (and ignorant individuals) may have on his employees. “There’s no doubt that we’re going to have to deal with some ridiculous idiot who comes in proclaiming himself the king of COVID,” he says. “And who deals with that? A server who’s being paid minimum wage.”

Tostenson thinks the biggest change for dine-in could be in sanitization–not how often it’s done but how conspicuous it is. “You’ll see signs of cleaning which otherwise would have happened behind the scenes,” he says. (When it comes to reassuring customers, the industry could face challenges: in a recent survey, Ipsos found that just 2 percent of Canadians trust full-service restaurants’ cleanliness and safety protocols, versus 40 percent for grocery stores, the leader by a wide margin.) Through a new program, the BCRFA will acknowledge the spots going above and beyond to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Most restaurants will embrace technology for contactless pay and online ordering. Tostenson says some might venture further and use robots to serve food, which minimizes contact and cuts labour costs. “I don’t love that as a concept because ultimately, a restaurant is about social interaction,” he says. No matter how much time passes or how the numbers change, the industry will never quite be the same, Tostenson believes. “I think there’s a consciousness now that we need a little bit more space,” he says. “We’ve had this pandemic, and we might have another one, so let’s be prepared…because we can’t go through this again.”