Burnt out, precarious and anxious – some restaurateurs are choosing to take a break until COVID calms
Takeout and delivery has been a lifeline for Toronto restaurants throughout the pandemic – but, deep into the third lockdown, some are deciding it’s no longer worth it.
Forced once again to close their patios as COVID numbers soar, a growing number of eateries have decided to put away their to-go containers and close up shop until they can safely serve customers in-person again.
Signs and messages have appeared on the doors and Instagrams of spots like the Skyline, Manita, Dirty Food, Sara, Rasa and La Bartola.
“The good news is we will have a patio hopefully in May. The bad news is we’re closing until then,” went the Instagram announcement from the Skyline two weeks ago. The revitalized Parkdale diner institution ended the post with a couple of hashtags: #thisfuckingsucks #fuckford
That’s a pretty common viewpoint, but there’s another factor that has more to do with the people running the restaurants than the restaurants themselves.
While some blame the rising COVID cases, some point to Doug Ford’s ineffective communication and stop-start lockdown strategy, and some cite financial stress, there is one other motivation they all have in common: mental health.
“It’s been a huge strain on all of us doing takeout seven days a week,” says Adam Minster, the owner of Sara and Rasa, two restaurants under the Food Dudes umbrella. “That isn’t why we got into this industry and it was taking all of our attention and effort, so it was really taking its toll on our health – physical and mental health.”
The two restaurants were among the first to pivot to takeout and delivery way back in March 2020 when dining first shut down, but now just about everyone else – comfort food spots and fine dining establishments alike – has followed suit. Now there’s a lot more competition for hungry Torontonians.
There was a brief solace this past March when patios were allowed to reopen for the second time, but they were ordered to close less than two weeks later as Ontario braced for the third wave.
Rasa closed for 10 days to get ready for the return to outdoor dining, reconfiguring the restaurant and building a new summer menu. By the time they opened, they got only three days of service before having to shut it down again.
That wasn’t a quick or cheap transition to make. For vegan Mexican restaurant La Bartola, it cost about $4,000 to get ready for patio service again.
“Then just two weeks after, they announced we had to close it again. It was very frustrating,” says owner and chef Ivan Castro.
For Castro, the financial strain was especially tight – as a restaurant that opened after the pandemic started, La Bartola has not been eligible for many of the government subsidies that are available. So, to pay the rent and the staff and stay open for takeout, he’s been investing a lot of his own money. And, since the summer dine-in service ended, the restaurant has become a money-losing operation.
“Since the second lockdown, we’ve tried a lot of different things – we’ve tried packages, boxes, meal kits, whatever,” Castro says. “We explored everything.
“Physically and mentally, I was exhausted.”
There is still some optimism among these restaurateurs. Vaccinations are rolling out, if slowly, and there’s still a chance at a decent summer of dining. Even if the projected end of the lockdown in mid-May seems like a long shot, patio season could start late and still run into October or November with some winterization.
For comfort food restaurant Dirty Food in the Junction, being able to see a rosier future made the decision to close even easier.
“We’re so close to the finish line, so close to being able to get vaccinated,” says Leslie Wilks, who co-owns the restaurant with her partner Jonathan Iskiw. “To put ourselves at risk for a couple of extra bucks just doesn’t make sense at this point.”
The couple has been running the restaurant as a two-person takeout operation since they were forced to lay off their staff last year and never reopened for in-person service – a bus stop was blocking their space for a potential CafeTO curb patio, and they chose not to do indoor dining when it was briefly allowed.
“I didn’t feel comfortable serving tables myself, so it didn’t feel right to ask other people to do it,” says Wilks.
Watching the case count rise over the last few months has been making her increasingly anxious, she says, and it’s become overwhelming. She acknowledges they’re privileged to be able to decide to take a break while others can’t. Still, people in the restaurant business have not been the only ones having these struggles during COVID.
“A lot of people in the last year have taken time off for mental health, ours is just more public,” she says.
Dirty Food has been sustained throughout the pandemic by their dedicated regulars, and they’ve been supportive of their decision to take a break. The couple will return when they can get vaccinated and the case counts slow down – they hope by Victoria Day long weekend, but it’s not set in stone. Now that the Dundas West bus stop has moved, they might even be able to open a patio this year.
Sara restaurant in Toronto
Sara and Rasa aren’t entirely out of the takeout game – they’ve turned over their kitchens to pop-up takeout and delivery concepts that represent more of a “passion project” than regular takeout and delivery service. There’s a pop-up BBQ concept called Cory’s Smokehouse, run by their sous chef. Their other chefs are testing out concepts for pies and sandwiches. And Sara is running a collaborative series called You, Me + Sara that hands over their kitchen to outside chefs looking to try something new.
“It helps our chefs and managers get out of this funk we were in,” says Minsker. “Pop-ups are more fun for everyone. We get to express ourselves as opposed to just slapping some food together in a takeout box and then never seeing anyone’s reaction to it.”
For some in the restaurant business, there’s an alienation that goes along with the at-a-distance style of service that’s allowed in this new normal.
That’s why La Bartola is waiting until they hear an announcement that they can welcome diners again.
“But this time, we might wait a few weeks before we do,” says Castro.