Shomporko Online News Desk: Joe Mercurio, the founder, and owner of Bar Mercurio, a small but mighty Italian restaurant and bar in midtown Toronto, was giving his take on the Ontario government’s unexpected decision to allow communal outdoor drinking and eating on the restaurant’s patio this week. A gradual reawakening of pandemic-battered Ontario will be taken in small increments in the hopes of the first so-called hospitality business.
The official reopening time was midnight, as Thursday was ticked off Friday. At times, such as Hemingway, in nearby Yorkville, had planned to open until the last call at 2 a.m., but the pandemic has put the focus on Mr. Mercurio’s ambitions. She’s not all about the hottest, latest, most packed out anymore. “I get nothing at twelve o’clock in the night.”
As the province accelerates, the Ontario Courtyard and Retail will open on Friday. Plans for the reopening of COVID-19
His announcement will be made at 9 a.m. on Wednesday. Mr. Mercurio is sitting on the front porch of his bustling house, sipping espresso. He has a D’Artagnan-style three-row goatee and chin beard, and his typical haircut is long and wild. The reopening order arrived three days sooner than expected, causing consternation among local restaurant and bar owners. Bar Mercurio’s little patio — five tables of four, maybe four – will open at 11 a.m. on Friday, but it is already fully booked for the weekend. “Does it make a difference if it’s better than nothing?” Yes, of course. Is it what we’re looking for? Certainly not.”
The reopening – the food trade’s first optimism in a year – will be anything but a breeze. The acute shortage of staff means that even this humble opening cannot take place at full bore. Meanwhile, the restaurant business is fueled by fury over government inefficiency at every level.
Only a quarter of new restaurants survive more than a year at best. The pandemic has dragged them like a pack of wolves set upon a herd of dying caribou. COVID-19 may have paralyzed the hospitality industry, but the industry always had a taste for self-destruction.
Ontario’s new “Roadmap to Reopening” is already causing confusion, even over this, the weekend of the first leg of the Great Reopening and Return to Life (hope we knew it) a moment of Phase 1’s official “guiding principles”—which are similar to a 1950s religious pamphlet on intimate relationships between newlyweds—allow restaurants and bars to open their patios to a maximum of four people per table. Unless, it is a family group to which they can add another person according to the old epidemiological rules, as long as that person lives alone. Are you already confused? What about five students living together – do they constitute a family? “There is very little clarity,” Al Stuart, managing partner of Pilot, a bar and restaurant that has thrived on the edge of Yorkville for 75 years, told me the other day. Mr. Stuart decided to impose a limit of four people per table regardless. He still can’t tell from the government guidelines that there is a limit to how many tables one can have. According to the rules, Phase 1 must remain in effect for at least three weeks to prevent any increase in the infection rate. Just like steps 2 and 3. This gets you there until the end of the summer.
Reopening isn’t cheap: Restaurants Canada, an industry lobby group, estimates the average restart will run $40,000. It also takes time: Pilot has 70 beer tap lines running from the keg room to the bar, and they only take half a day to flush. But there are also pop lines and coffee makers and ice machines, not to mention contact-tracing logs to make and maintain. “Every one of those things has a different guy who comes to dress them up, and they’re all being pressured to do it all at once this week.”
Still, the chance to re-open his large and thatched-roof patio meant salvation for Mr. Stuart: Selling nothing but lockdown takeout in the winter, he was reduced to grossing $500 a day. His competitors estimate that he can gross 30 times that amount on a sunny non-pandemic spring day. To survive, he has taken out more than $250,000 in partially forgivable pandemic loans. “We have to make a lot of money this summer to pay them off.”
But preparation problems fade in the face of staff shortages, which are already limiting even a slow start to this weekend. Dean Labreche, the owner of Famoso, an artisan pizza restaurant around the corner where I live in Toronto, has been racking up his brain and contact list for a week to find four additional employees to open his six-table patio. Can you
The other day I spoke to the Managing Partner of one of the largest high-end restaurant management companies in the country, who have been industry leaders for years. The company recently completed a human resources survey of its pre-pandemic employees in preparation for the reopening. The results were stroke-inducing. Thirty percent of its managers, 40 percent of its front-end staff (servers and hosts), and, most critically, 60 percent of its cooks reported that they had either left the (very expensive) city, left the industry, or ‘now Not ready to return to work. No one knows whether it is permanent or short-lived. And it’s an industry that had less than 60,000 people across Canada before this Epidemic.
Andrew Oliver, chief executive officer and managing partner of Oliver & Bonacini (Carlu, Canoe, Jump, Biffs, and other high-end downtown Toronto restaurant treasures), was not surprised when I told him about my findings. Mr. Oliver believes that rising salaries, food, and borrowing costs will make the next six to nine months even more insecure – especially if the federal government cuts to salary and rent subsidies at a time when the restaurant industry is returning to work and most need them.
“The response has been incredibly positive and demonstrates that Torontonians are keen to move forward to return to normal,” he adds of Phase 1’s early days. “If only we didn’t have to wait another 41 days before we could restart inside meals and incidents could occur.”