Since the first COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, no other industry has endured more shutdowns, restrictions, and shortages than the hospitality sector.
Despite the turmoil, restaurateurs have managed to persevere; reimaging their business models to streamline operations and give customers a taste of normalcy with a safe, enjoyable dining experience.
No Signs of Slowing Down – The F&B Hospitality Group
Opening a brand new restaurant is a challenge even in the best of times. Opening three restaurants during a global pandemic? That might be the definition of insanity.
“Maybe we’re just crazy,” laughs Rosemary Woods, co-owner of The F&B Hospitality Group which includes The Grand Cantina, Slices Pizza, Taloola Café, and Funky Chow Kitchen.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, all these opportunities became available and were just too good to pass up,” she explains.
“It was probably the dumbest move but it worked,” laughs her business partner John Alvarez. “We just keep expanding and it’s been very positive for us.”
Over the past 18 months, the pair juggled the stresses of restrictions, staffing shortages and supply shortages while simultaneously re-launching Slices Pizza, renovating Taloola Café, and opening their latest venture, the Asian-fusion themed Funky Chow Kitchen.
Woods and Alvarez also managed to keep The Grand Cantina afloat with a busy takeout model, handling everything from answering phones to making tacos during the first lockdown.
Those were long days, admits Alvarez, noting they’re happy to have their team back as diners return to their four sites.
“We have a really good core group of people,” says Woods. “They’ve been our all-stars through all of this.”
“It’s really cool to see where we’re at now, and we’re still building,” adds Alvarez. “Going from just the two of us in the beginning to having over 40 employees. It’s a good feeling.”
Feelin’ the (Local) Love – Parks & Rec Gastropub Sports Bar
A staple in the Forest Glade community for the past five years, Parks & Rec Gastropub Sports Bar was able to weather the rolling lockdowns with an outpouring of support from their loyal patrons.
“We’ve been so lucky,” says General Manager Tanya Hendrik. “We have a great group of regulars that join us on the patio when we’re open and ordered takeout when we’ve had to close.”
Hendrik and her team haven’t taken that support for granted; working hard to ensure the best customer experience possible. Over the past 18 months, they’ve offered a variety of family meals, weekly features, and customizable catering options.
In early 2020, the restaurant also underwent a menu re-branding, refocusing their offerings with an emphasis on fresh, local ingredients.
“Our guests responded so positively to that,” she reflects.
As restrictions lifted, the Parks & Rec staff was happy to welcome customers back to dine in their safe, spacious environment.
“We’re fortunate we have such a large covered patio, as well as a large interior space,” says Hendrik. “We have the space to social distance and move tables around as needed.”
Their private event space, The Pavilion, has also allowed them to accommodate small groups of people looking to host intimate gatherings with friends and family.
“Restaurants have pivoted so much over the last year and half,” she says. “Now I feel like we have a good, solid plan to continue forward no matter what happens.”
Recipe for Success – The Salty Dog & Pepper Cat
In the face of countless restrictions and shutdowns, The Salty Dog in downtown Amherstburg has continued to reinvent itself throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. After a winter of family meals and “takeout only” specials, the team bounced back with a renewed vigor when the province reopened in June.
“It was a big sigh of relief to welcome everyone back, but it was also overwhelming,” explains owner Kevin Lafontaine. “The demand for an in-person dining experience was even greater than it was last year.”
“We’re very fortunate to have such a loyal following,” laughs Executive Chef Rob Nesbitt. “We’re barely keeping up.”
Amid all the craziness of reopening, Lafontaine was also offered the opportunity to purchase the building next door and jumped at the chance to expand.
“I had my eye on that building ever since I opened Salty Dog,” he explains. “I always thought it would make a cool little date night spot.”
And thus, Pepper Cat was born; a fine dining concept with a relaxed vibe and creative cocktail menu. The deal was inked in mid-April, and the restaurant opened June 11th after a quick interior update.
“It definitely had its challenges, but we were able to get everything done relatively quickly,” says Lafontaine. “We’ve been busy ever since we opened.”
“It’s been stressful but it’s been great,” says Nesbitt. “It’s honestly one of the best parts of my job; seeing the people that love what we’re doing and keep coming back.”
Rebuilding and Reinventing – Twigg’s Bar & Grill
After a devastating fire ripped through her restaurant in September 2019, Twigg’s Bar & Grill owner Melissa Skene was determined to rebuild.
Not even a global pandemic could stop her.
The extensive restoration took longer than expected as COVID-19 restrictions were implemented, but Skene and her team were finally able to reopen the popular Emeryville restaurant in October 2020.
“Just in time to turn around and close,” she laughs.
Although business slowed during the winter lockdown, Twigg’s was able to draw in customers by featuring a variety of family-style dinners including fajitas, pulled pork mac and cheese, chicken parmesan, and wings.
“We had to get creative with takeout specials,” she explains. “Our family meals really took off and we continue to offer them.”
As restrictions eased in the spring, Skene was happy to welcome customers back both on the patio and indoors.
“It’s been nice to see a lot of our regulars back sitting in their favourite spots,” remarks Skene.
Despite dealing with the industry-wide labour shortages and supply issues, Skene says the restaurant bounced back well over the summer months.
“We’ve been very busy,” says Skene. “We’ve been fortunate; we made it through and other places did not.”
Should restrictions by imposed again in the fall, Skene says they’ll be ready to pivot again.
“We’re pandemic professionals at this point,” she laughs. “We’ve learned to be quick on our feet.”
Less is More – The Twisted Apron
The Twisted Apron has been one of Windsor’s most popular breakfast spots for over a decade; closed only for Christmas and packed the other 364 days of the year.
But when COVID-19 hit, owner Katie Robinson did what she thought was best: she shuttered her doors, opting not to remain open for takeout so her staff could stay home and care for their families.
“The first time we shut down, I’ve never been so stressed out about losing my business. There were so many unknowns,” she says.
While Robinson has been relieved to be able to reopen when she can, she has continued to close completely when restrictions are enacted.
“We would rather be open, but it’s not worth it for a breakfast place. Each lockdown gets less stressful though because we know we’re eventually going to reopen.”
Robinson has used the past 18 months to spend time with her daughter and reflect on what’s truly important.
“What I’ve learned through all of this is that life is short,” she reflects. “I don’t want to work myself to death. For me now, less is more.”
Since reopening this past spring, Robinson says it’s been great to welcome customers back.
“This is the busiest we’ve ever been,” says Robinson. “I don’t know how long this will last but it is exactly what the restaurants need right now.”
Despite the ups and downs, Robinson remains hopeful.
“Some positives did come out of all this for sure,” she says. “We have some really great things in store for the future.”
While reopening efforts continue, it’s important to remain supportive of your favourite local establishments. By dining at small, independently-owned restaurants, you’re not only contributing to the local economy; you’re also supporting your friends and neighbours.