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Mouths watering as local restaurants prepare to open patios

While patios can open Friday, 'it’s just not going to go back to being the same right away,' said owner of downtown eatery

The provincial government announced Monday that restaurants will be able to open their patios as of Friday.

Orillia restaurants are now scrambling to prepare for re-opening that element of their business.

Rustica Pizza Vino owner Jenna Clarke says the province's announcement on Monday caught her off guard.

“I wouldn’t say this was a shock, but we weren’t expecting to open this soon, so we have to make the adjustments to keep everyone safe,” she said.

The Rustica patio will be open on Friday, but Clarke is warning customers to expect changes and to be patient during the re-opening stage.

“If people show up expecting to have the usual experience and service, they may be disappointed. It’s just not going to go back to being the same right away,” she said.

While the patio will be open Friday, Rustica won’t be providing their full menu right away. In addition, tables will be at least two meters apart, customers will have to be guided to a washroom by an employee and Clarke has brought back only eight of her 25 staff members.

Despite all that, Clarke expects a busy weekend ahead.   

“I think it’s going to be chaotic. I don’t know if it’s going to be as busy as it usually is in the summer but we are not ready to handle that anyways,” she explained.

Although Rustica won’t be taking any reservations for at least this weekend and potentially even further into the week ahead, Clarke has received requests from not only Orillia customers, but also customers who are still stuck in Stage 1 of the province's reopening plans, looking to escape restrictions.

“We’ve had emails from people in Toronto already trying to make reservations. We are considering only serving locals right now,” Clarke said.

Clarke believes one of the reasons Orillia has stayed safer than other regions of the province is due, in part, to local residents taking the pandemic seriously. She doesn’t want to risk that hard work and sacrifice and end up back at square one.

“We don’t want to go backwards or have anyone on our crew get sick. We want to offer the safest environment that we can,” she said.

If Rustica does decide to limit their services to locals, they will include cottagers as long as they can provide a local address.  

“We appreciate the cottagers and Orillia relies on them through the summer and we rely on the people who come to the port," Clarke said.

"When things go back to normal next summer, we are going to need them. We don’t want to alienate anyone but we want to make sure that we are safe."

Clarke believes that Rustica could have survived the summer months if the government kept restaurants completely closed, but the pandemic would have made things tight down the stretch into the winter months.   

“If this went on for a year, I think it would have made things interesting,” Clarke said.

Over at Studabakers Beachside, owner Joe Winacott says the province's green light came just in the knick of time; the popular waterfront restaurant and bar was only a few months away from closing for good.

Allowing the patio to open is a saving grace for the local restaurant.

He said he is going "above and beyond" to keep customers and staff safe with things like plexiglass, a full stock of personal protective equipment, markers on the ground to show physical distancing and limited washroom stalls and capacity. 

As of Friday, Studabakers will be allowing a maximum of 61 people on the patio at a time - cut in half from the 122 capacity that they typically operate with.

“We are trying to think of different ways to create income. Our late-night entertainment is going to be gone, we won’t have any bands or anything like that,” Winacott said.

As a result, Studabakers will begin serving breakfast on the patio in the coming weeks on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Studabakers will not be taking reservations, but will be operating on a first-come first-serve basis. A line-up has been created down on the patio street side with pylons separating six feet in-between customers.

Each table will have 90-minute time limit for people to complete their meal, giving everybody an opportunity to enjoy the experience.

Winacott is hoping his restaurant will be as busy as possible this weekend. He’s also hoping for good weather.

One of the biggest challenges local restaurants will have on their hands this weekend is the shortage of draft beer. St. Louis Bar & Grill owner Brad Watters says major breweries haven’t been brewing during the pandemic.  

“We’ve bought some kegs so we have enough to get us through the weekend, but we will see some shortages over the next week,” Watters warned.

Watters said the west Orillia restaurant is mostly ready to go and prepared to re-open.

"The biggest challenge will be staffing. We need to figure out which staff want to work and then we need to get them ready to go for Friday,” he said.

Watters is also strategizing on how to create more opportunity for customers to enjoy the restaurant's patio experience come Friday.  

“We are looking at creating additional space out front of our restaurant, if needed, which would put us over 100 for max capacity,” Waters said.

Watters says St. Louis could potentially transform four parking spots out front of the restaurant into a bonus patio area, but they are still waiting for more clarity from the provincial government on restrictions and guidelines.

“We are going to do our job to provide the safest environment that we can. At the end of the day, there is always risk but we are going to be as compliant and clean as we can be while still providing the enjoyable experience of going out for dinner and having a great social time,” Watters explained.

Watters expects a busy weekend ahead.

“I think it’s going to be very busy. I think people are looking to live a little and get back out,” he said.

St. Louis just opened its doors last September. 

“We’ve had a lot of help along the way and we are going to be fine. We’ve had great support from the people who came in for take-out and we know those customers will continue to support us,” Watters said.

St. Louis will likely begin taking reservations as of today. Like others, Watters is hopeful for good weather this weekend and moving forward.

“We are hoping the Sunshine City lives up to its billing over the next three weeks. That will be critical,” Watters said. 

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Tyler Evans

About the Author: Tyler Evans

Tyler Evans got his start in the news business when he was just 15-years-old and now serves as a video producer and reporter with OrilliaMatters
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