LAST CALL: THE STARK REALITY OF OUR LOCAL RESTAURANT INDUSTRY DURING COVID

WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN 

‘On a good day before the pandemic,’ Chef Nick Benninger remarks, as he and I meander somberly through a labyrinth of empty dining rooms and event spaces that compriseSt Jacobs’ legendary Stone Crock culinary complex, ‘we’d easily see upwards of five hundred people coming through here – chatting and laughing and breaking bread together.’ Stopping to look into the Shantz Room – a private dining space that once upon a time would have been full on a sunny spring day like this, but that today sits unoccupied and in darkness – Nick adds, soberly: ‘Maybe more.’ 

Restauranteur & Chef Nick Benninger (of Fat Sparrow Group)

Not today, though. Or any day, for that matter, since some time in the middle of March, when the provincial government shuttered dine-in eating at restaurants – deeming this popular pastime ‘non-essential.’ As we wander past a vacant buffet counter, Nick continues: ‘Nowadays, we’re lucky to get fifty people through our curbside pop-up.’ 

It’s an eerie feeling, this: moving through these empty spaces of what’s deemed by many to be the very heart of our region’s tourism district. I remember visiting the Stone Crock often as a little kid when my parents’ publishing company, Sand Hills Books (a side hustle they founded and operated when not professoring at the local universities), had a postal box just down the road. My overwhelming memory from back then: that the place was packed. All. The. Time. Folks dining in. Grabbing a containerof potato salad or a homemade boxedpie from the bakery. Seated outside in the sunshine enjoying a muffin and coffee before sauntering down the street to visit shops, galleries, and more. 

Before I become too nostalgic, Nick
brings me back to now. ‘Succeeding in the restaurant industry is tough in the best of times,’ he notes. ‘But in times like these it’s
a whole lot tougher.’ I don’t question Nick’s assertion. Of anyone, he should know. Co- owner of The Fat Sparrow Group, which controls several regional culinary hotspots
– including Marbles, Taco Farm, Uptown21, Jacob’s Grill, and Stone Crock (not to mention Fat Sparrow Foods and Fat Sparrow Catering) – Nick has seen his business absolutely
run through by this global pandemic. And perhaps worst of all: the conclusion of this grim predicament is nowhere in sight.

Nick continues: ‘At the beginning of March our restaurants employed two hundred
and thirty people. On March seventeenth, when the government ordered us to close all eat-in operations, we were down to fifteen.’ 

I quickly do the math in my head and am stunned by the number I come up with. ‘That’s over two hundred lay-offs,’ I mutter, audibly shaken. ‘Over two hundred friends,’ Nick confirms solemnly. ‘Or, more to the point, over two hundred members of our extended family.’ Nick’s voice trails off. The weight on him is palpable. 

The agony is real for employers like Nick and his restaurant industry peers, who have overhead costs few of us can fathom. And for the tens of thousands of restaurant employees across our region compelled to go on Employment Insurance (EI), or to apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), or to look further afield to seek whatever assistance they might find. 

Consider these numbers: while Nick’s Fat Sparrow Group has had to lay off over two hundred staff, The Neighbourhood Group of Restaurants (whose stable includes The Wooly, Miijidaa, Borealis, and Park Grocery) has laid off over one hundred and fifty; The Ignite Group of Brands (Graffiti Market, The Rich Uncle Tavern, Wilhelm’s Provisions, Red Circle Brewing & Coffee, and Crowsfoot Smokehaus & General Store) has had to let over one hundred people go; Baker Street Station and 39 Carden 

in Guelph have laid off a combined fifty people; Guelph and Kitchener’s Crafty Ramen have laidoff fifteen. Even smaller joints like Elora’s The Friendly Society and The Evelyn, which were both thriving start-ups before the crisis hit, have laid off a combined forty workers. That’s well over four hundred people out of work across fewer than twenty restaurants among thousands of culinary establishments across our region. And hundreds of thousands across the nation. 

Restauranteur Maclean Hann (of The Evelyn, Elora)

‘When restaurants were initially ordered to close down,’ Nick notes, ‘we didn’t receive any official notice from the government.’ Indeed, Nick – like so many of his colleagues – found out via the news that he’d have to close his business. And that their operations would have to be shut down within less than twenty-four hours. 

As Court Desautels, President of The Neighbourhood Group, noted when I visited him some weeks back at The Wooly: ‘Shuttering even the most straightforward business in less than a day is hard work. Now imagine closing an entire restaurant – with dozens of staff and potentially tens of thousands of dollars of perishable food on site.’ Food that could no longer be sold. And food that (so often) had been sourced from local businesses who now face their own dilemma of having lost their largest client – the restaurant industry. 

Restauranteur Court Desautels (of The Neighbourhood Group of Restaurants)

‘Our restaurants alone supported over half the annual business of some local growers and meat producers,’ Court told me. ‘Not many people understand just how huge an impact this global crisis has had on the industry. Before the pandemic, restaurants were the fourth largest employer
in Canada, with well over one million jobs. They accounted for seven percent of the country’s workforce. And now restaurant workers are the largest segment on EI, and they are disallowed from working until restrictions are lifted.’ 

Court was candid about the situation regionally, too, bleakly observing that ‘it’s looking like we’ll be allowed to open at only fifty percent capacity. Which means it’s unlikely that all industry folks will be re-hired.’ His comments were sobering, evoking, as they did, images of an industry caught in an intractable crisis. An industry suffering for all sorts of reasons – including the fact that elements of it were precarious even before the pandemic began. 

The Wooly

As Nick and I continue to chat, he surmises that well before the current state of affairs there had been far too many unprofitable restaurant businesses (and empty dining rooms) in the region and beyond. ‘I just hope
the lessons we’re learning about our sector during this pandemic remain implemented when this whole thing is over,’ he sighs. Lessons like acknowledging the need to re- think the very essence of what a restaurant is – and could be. 

Nick elaborates: ‘We’ve tended to assume that the
heart of any great restaurant is its dining room, for instance, without really questioning whether all culinary establishments need dining rooms at all.’ He continues: ‘One thing this pandemic has revealed about our operations is that at least some culinary establishments could be more profitable implementing a pick-up, take- out, and delivery model only.’ Well, it’s not the first thing
I would have expected him to say. I listen attentively while he speaks of his Uptown Waterloo establishment, Taco Farm, as a great example of what he’s been thinking about. ‘After turning the dining room into a triage centre for take-out and delivery, and analyzing the numbers
so far, it actually looks like Taco Farm might do better without a dining room,’ he tells me. ‘Of course,’ he adds, ‘dining rooms are important; indeed, they’re veritable hubs of community. But they’re not always necessary. And they incur so many costs – from staffing to rent.’ 

It seems more and more true that the people most likely to survive the present crisis are those who recognizethe range of their own strengths, assets, talents, and capabilities – people who have vision and the courage to pivot. Quickly. And effectively. We can see it all over: people and businesses making the best of these dire times, being innovative and creative and adaptable. 

Nick’s Fat Sparrow Group, for example, has (over and above fine-tuning take-out and delivery options) created an online marketplace where folks can order anything from Stone Crock Bakery bread to fresh pork sausage from Stone Crock Meats & Cheese – as well as fixingsto prepare meals, beer, and even wine. And Kitchener’s Graffiti Market has begun something similar. As Neil Huber, co-owner of Ignite Group, told me: ‘At Graffiti we’ve begun a patio-side grocery pick-up where customers can order everything from boxes of fresh produce to Stemmler’s double-smoked bacon.’ 

Marbles

For a bit of fun, Guelph’s Crafty Ramen has been offering DIY ramen kits for take-out and delivery so folks are able to craft their own ramen bowls at home. In the same spirit of ‘fun with food,’ both Baker Street Station and Willibald are offering DIY pizza kits. ‘I’m quite sure that these sorts of ‘prepare at home’ kits will remain commonplace after the pandemic,’ remarked The Evelyn’s Maclean Hann when I had a chance to chat with him, adding: ‘It only makes sense.’ 

And then of course there are the dozens upon dozens of regional restaurants that have transformed operations into take-
out and delivery spots. As The Friendly Society’s owner, Becky Lalui, noted when her restaurant first began offering take-out: ‘It’s a way to keep staff working, stay somewhat connected to our customers, and offer folks at home a treat for when they’re in the mood.’ And what’s more – Becky plans on
keeping The Friendly’s newly-built take-out 35 window for late night eats when this is all
over. 

Restauranteur Becky Lalui (of The Friendly Society, Elora)

As Nick and I arrive at the venerable Stone Crock Bakery, I take a look around. Tables and chairs, usually spread about the place, are stacked in a corner, wrapped in yellow tape. A sign on the door lets folks know
that no more than five customers at a time can be in the place. Other pieces of tape demark where bakery shoppers can stand. And a protective sheet of transparent plastic hangs in front of the cashier. 

Nick takes note of my wandering eyes, and remarks: ‘Things aren’t what they used to be, that’s for sure.’ I nod. And then lookat him. He appears stoic. Purpose-driven. Challenged by the present but also ready for the future – a time we can only dream of right now: when these rooms will be filled again with people chatting, laughing, and breaking bread together.