Local restaurant owners, forced by the province to shut down indoor dining for three weeks, say they are not confident the restaurant restrictions will be lifted on Jan. 26 as promised.
That uncertainty, coupled with fatigue and fears of the rapidly-spreading Omicron virus, prompted some Orillia eateries to shut down completely rather than offer take-out.
Lot 88 Kitchen and Bar, a steakhouse on Memorial Avenue, opted to close throughout the most recent lockdown.
“We just aren’t much of a take-out place, so we decided to close until dining is permitted again,” says manager Dwayne Desloges.
The closure has put more than 20 employees out of work.
“It’s not ideal, but we can’t run a business if we aren’t making money. We would love to do take-out, but to keep the hydro on, gas running, and bringing in food with the hope that it gets served and not wasted, it’s just not worth it,” he said.
Desloges says the restaurant is fortunate to have a solid customer base and he expects the business to thrive once it re-opens.
“Last time a lockdown happened we had no problem getting back up and running, and we don’t foresee it being a problem when we do it again,”
Desloges isn't confident that restaurants will be able to open next week, but he is hopeful they will be able to re-open before Valentine’s Day.
“That is definitely the busiest day of the year. I think it would benefit the business for sure if we could get back open that day.”
St. Louis Bar and Grill is another local restaurant that has elected to close altogether and not offer take-out options.
“It’s hard to make any money doing take-out. When you are paying fees to delivery services at an excess of 20 percent it’s hard to justify being open for four days a week,” said owner Brad Watters.
“We will open for take-out once we are given some direction on when we will be re-opened, probably a week before we have that date.”
Like Desloges, Watters isn’t confident that restaurants will re-open later this month.
“If you look at past history, they (Ontario government) have yet to do what they say they will do. So, I think there will be a delay in this as well,” he said.
“For us to open successfully next week we would have to know by Thursday or Friday this week. We would have to order food, get everything back in, and I’m sure it’s the same for all restaurants.”
Watters says even when his restaurant was open for business, they were seeing a 50 to 60 percent decrease in customers with the rise of the Omicron variant keeping people home.
“The government did a lot of damage in the six weeks going into the lockdown by telling people not to go out, and then they locked us down. We’ve been fighting on this thing for almost two months,” he said.
“We don’t make a lot of money anymore and we are one of the busiest spots in Orillia. Can you imagine how much other people are struggling with going through this? How much money do they have in their places that they will have to make up after this thing? And that’s if they survive.”
Watters says St. Louis Bar and Grill will be back better than ever after recently renovating their bar. He thanked the community for their continued support.
Rustica Pizza Vino is one local business that has decided to stay open for take-out.
“We are really lucky to have a loyal and supportive customer base, whether it’s take-out or dine-in. We’ve seen our take-out crowd stay steady. On Friday and Saturday nights our take-out is very busy, sometimes there is a two-hour wait. But sometimes during the week it’s hit or miss,” said owner Jenna Clarke.
While take-out is helping, it’s not a viable way of doing business for long, Clarke says.
“To keep all of my full-time staff employed we have to bleed out a little right now. Sometimes when I only need two or three people plus me working, I will have six people plus me working,” she said.
“None of our full-timers are laid off. Should I have? Yeah, probably. But luckily, we’ve saved enough for where we are bleeding out a bit on weeknights it’s OK right now. It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make to go into the summer with this crew.”
Clarke says finding staff right now can be a challenge, making it hard to lay anyone off.
“When we re-open, customers want us there and open and ready to rock and roll. That’s difficult to do when we don’t even have a hint of what the date will be," she said.
“Also, I genuinely care about these people. I spend more time with them than I do with anyone else in my life. They have been here to support the business and take care of Rustica during the busiest times, during the past lockdown, and they never complained. They do the best job whether it’s slow and they are cleaning or if it’s busy and stressful," said Clarke.
“I don’t want to see them have to worry about paying rent or anything like that. The government has truthfully not come through for the employees. When CERB was a thing you knew they were being taken care of, but I don’t see that now. If I were to lay someone off, I don’t even know what I’d recommend they do right now, so I don’t want to put someone in that position.”
Clarke says she feels fortunate she can bite the bullet and keep her staff employed because she knows some businesses don’t have a choice.
“For some restaurants right now it’s a different concept and not worth it for them to be open right now, and they have to lay everyone off. I’m not criticizing their decisions. I think everyone has to make the best decision for their business or they won’t come out of it,” she said.