Surviving a global pandemic thanks to patios, passion and a supportive public | Squamish Chief

Surviving a global pandemic thanks to patios, passion and a supportive public

How some Squamish eateries are staying open and serving customers during COVID-19

The world of eating out was turned on its head in March, with the declaration of a global pandemic.

Cafes, restaurants and pubs faced a market and environment that was completely uncharted.

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Most closed for a time. Some closed for good.

Others have morphed and adapted as best they can to survive and even thrive.

In June, the District launched the Temporary Patio and Sidewalk Sale program that allowed for the temporary creation or expansion of patios, sidewalk sales, or parking stall cafés on District-owned or privately-owned land. That program was set to end on Oct. 31, but during council’s special business meeting on Oct. 20, elected officials voted to extend the program for one year, until Halloween 2021.

Since it began, 10 temporary patio permits — for businesses downtown, in Brackendale, Valleycliffe, and the Northyards — were approved, according to Alicia Woodside of the District's economic development department, who presented to council on the issue at the meeting.

Businesses were "very happy" with the program, Woodside said.

"One business stated that they would likely have had to close down permanently if it wasn't for this program," she told council.

"Eight out of 10 said, if given the chance, they would like to use this program through winter."

Marcie Brenton, general manager at The Copper Coil Still and Grill told The Chief being able to have a patio extension was "huge" for the restaurant.

Staff built the patio and had it up in June.

"It was like night and day for us because we are so small inside," she said. "Our numbers were right on par with our numbers from last year, because we had that patio."

Originally with their regular patio, they could sit 40 people outside. With the new patio extension, they have room for another 35.

Inside they can fit 28.

"We are very thankful for the District doing that," she said, of the patio permits.

Brenton said looking to winter, they do have heaters out on the patio and have long talked about a covering, but haven't bit the bullet yet.

"I don't think it is in the cards for this year, but maybe for next year," she said.

Inside, they have also invested in Plexiglass to fit as many people safely.

"We are coming up with ways to construct more seating with Plexiglass," she said. "We are going to Fort Knox the place to make it safe," she added with a laugh.

Over at fellow downtown restaurant, Saha Eatery, co-owner Shannon Walls told The Chief that staff set up a patio in the parking lot one week after the District gave the go-ahead.

"This program helped us immensely! We only had four tables inside and two on our back patio. The parking lot patio provided an additional four tables for us to use," she said via email.

She said they are looking into whether or not it's feasible to put up a tent with heaters for the winter months now that the program has expanded.

"I really hope this program of outdoor patios continues every summer and is not just temporarily extended. It was hugely successful," she said.

When everything was in lockdown the restaurant remained open by continuing to offer take out.

"We also provided a delivery service during that time. And currently, we're in the process of setting up online ordering," she said when asked for more ways they have survived the pandemic.

In terms of feedback, the District also reached out to the Downtown Squamish Business Improvement Association, the Squamish Farmers' Market, Tourism Squamish, and the Squamish Chamber of Squamish, and all were supportive of the patio program as well as the parks program, which allowed businesses and organizations to set up in local parks, according to Woodside.

"They told us they were appreciative of how quickly these programs were launched, and how useful they were to local businesses to help recover revenue," she added when presenting to council.

"The Downtown BIA, in particular, shared that they thought the programs helped create a vibrant and thriving downtown."

Essence Of India Restaurant
Squamish's Essence of India crew. - Essence Of India Restaurant

Praduman Shergi, the owner of Essence of India, which has been on Tantalus Road since 2007, said he wanted to set up a patio, but it was mid-August before he got the go-ahead from his landlords, so it hasn't been a boon for his business, which was down 40% over the summer.

He said his restaurant survived by starting to offer take-out right away, as soon as the pandemic was declared.

"My kitchen staff helped me a lot. I was at the front taking orders and they had to bear down and do it," he said. He considered shutting down take out, too, he said, but his staff convinced him not to.

His chef, Manish Sharma, has been with him since 2009 and is a sixth-generation chef from India.

 "He is my right arm," said Shergi.

He said they are proceeding cautiously into winter with all the precautions possible.

His advice for newer restaurants in town is to be very hands-on as the owner. He aims to talk to every table of customers who comes, he said.

"You have to be there yourself. You care," he said. "Simple as that when you go there and talk to them they like that you are working hard."

He credits locals for supporting the restaurant through the pandemic.

"We survived because of Squamish residents. They believed in my product and they really, really supported me. That is the whole idea."

At Lil Chef Bistro, owner Mihaela Boaru looked into the idea of setting up a patio but also didn't get approval from her landlord until late August.

"We weren't able to do a patio the way it was allowed," she said.

They are applying for it, but don't know if they will use a patio all winter.

"It would just be on the weekends, really, for us, for breakfasts," she said. "We don't have a lot of space in front."

The bistro shut down completely for three months after COVID-19 was declared and used the time to do renovations.

When they opened back up, sales were better than last year, she said.

"As soon as we opened, we just got slammed," she said, adding in addition to regular locals, they saw a lot of Lower Mainland customers over the summer. "And it kind of stayed that way. We can't complain at all."

Staffing was tough in the summer, however, she acknowledged. It isn't just about serving at the bistro, because they make everything from scratch so they need to train staff a lot.

"We lost three people and were able to hire a couple of people, but my husband and I were there every day," she recalled.

They are back up to full staffing now.

They weren't able to take advantage of the government-sponsored programs such as the wage or rent subsidy, but did get the government-offered business loan, she said.

Her key to surviving, and something other restaurateurs mentioned as well, was to be consistent in your service and food.

"We are still new, but we are getting better known now," she said.

She said while no one can predict how winter will go, they plan to keep the restaurant open, even if it is just for take out.

"We have repeat customers, some who come every day, and we just can't shut our doors."

Cork and Craft Taphouse
Cami Tedder has made the best of it, opening Cork and Craft Taphouse at the Sea to Sky Hotel on Aug. 1. - Cork and Craft Taphouse

Opening during a pandemic

Opening up a new business — never mind a new restaurant — during a pandemic doesn't sound like the easiest thing, but Cami Tedder has made the best of it, opening Cork and Craft Taphouse at the Sea to Sky Hotel on Aug. 1.

"Just before COVID hit, we solidified everything with the hotel and then COVID hit and we were committed," she said, adding they put in four months of renovations and cleaning before opening.

Opening so late in the summer, the patio allowance wasn't a help to them.

"We only had a month and a half of patio weather and our patio is very small. At this stage of the game, I totally think it will help, but I don't have anything to base it off of in history."

Tedder, a long-time Squamish resident, added they won't be expanding their patio this winter, due to the cost.

Tedder said the restaurant isn't short of space inside.

"Even with COVID protocols, we can still fit 75 people in our restaurant," she said.

For her establishment, the 10 p.m. alcohol sales cut off has been a challenge.

In September, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry ordered all bars, pubs, and restaurants to suspend liquor sales at 10 p.m.

"If you look at what the drinking crowd is, usually they are in their late 20s to early 30s and they don't leave their houses until 9:30 p.m. at night to go and have some fun. So, if you know you are going to be cut off from ordering alcohol at 10 p.m., why would you go out?" she said, adding she has seen a decline in that demographic.

Being associated with the hotel, Tedder had agreed to focus on serving the banquets, but they have been in short supply.

"With banquets not being allowed right now and Christmas parties not being booked and all of that stuff, it definitely affects us."

She said she is hoping some smaller work parties will book.

With all the challenges, Tedder says she has no regrets.

"Looking back, would I do it again in Squamish for this type of business — yes! In North Van, Burnaby, Vancouver — no. Squamish was ready for this type of restaurant and due to some other things, unfortunately, closing down, it opened up some windows for us and I think it has basically given us the traffic that we needed to get the word out as to what it is we are doing."

Tedder says the taphouse menu and vibe is something Squamish didn't have before they opened.

"We have craft breweries on tap. It is a one-stop-shop. We serve local BC wines. — I am starting a wine club later this month... We have got a lot of things we're trying to create some buzz with some specials and our crafty hour between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. daily... We have a lot of really good things coming together," she said, adding the menu is elevated, which is something Squamish doesn't have.

"Everything we do here is to try to bring a different level of standards and quality to the community with food. I know myself, I have two girls.... and when they were younger there were only a couple of places I could take my kids and know I was going to get a decent meal," she said. "I do believe people pay a little bit more quality and we are seeing that because our menu is being really embraced by the community and people are really talking about it, and they are coming back."

Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association, says to survive the pandemic longer-term, restaurants need to be innovative and have options for customers, including take out and meal kits. - Getty Images

Bird's eye view

"It is tough right now for everybody," said, Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association. There are 15,000 restaurants in B.C. and already about 10% of the industry is not coming back, he said.

"That could go as high as 30%, even a bit higher."

Business owners need to take advantage of the wage subsidy and the new rent program, Tostenson said.

"They have got to avail themselves of all those sorts of things."

He said gaining customer confidence is a key issue during the pandemic.

"Getting people out, completely understanding that this industry is 125% committed to health and safety — they always have been, but especially during COVID-19."

He said a robust delivery or take-out menu is also key.

"Picking some key menu items — and they are allowed to sell alcohol now — is to have some interesting offerings, maybe local breweries paired with that."

He said meal kits, heat and serve, worked well for some for Thanksgiving and may be a good option for some eateries.

"Be innovative," he said. "People are going to eat and they love their restaurants. They are either going to go, or experience the restaurant at home."

He said patios are great, and he encouraged restaurants not to abandon in-store dining.

"And really marketing yourself," he added.

The community, he said, needs to support local eateries, to create a circular economy, even if it is buying gift cards for others, if people aren't comfortable eating out themselves.

As Tedder mentioned, the cap on 10 p.m. alcohol sales is an issue, too, for some, Tostenson said,

He would like to see a regional context where different areas may be exempt from the cap.

"We are trying to talk about data and then use that data to develop some regional approaches to this," he said. "It is a lot different in Squamish than it is in Yaletown in Vancouver, and that is where problems in those areas should not be cascaded into Squamish, so we are very conscious of that."

He said while restaurants in the city may not be doing so well, in places like Squamish, people are staying in town and frequenting their hometown establishments these days.

"They are not driving to town to their offices and they want to have an experience. So, either get them in or reach out to them, but there should be enough people in Squamish to increase that business. It is not easy, you have to work hard at it."

Finally, he said on behalf of restaurants, he thanks those who frequent Squamish restaurants.

"It is totally appreciated. They are little economies that are attached to a small restaurant, could be 10 or 15 employees. It is such an important part of culture and experience and you know what... it is the only game in town. There is no other entertainment, so enjoy it."

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