Patio season is almost over in Canada. How will restaurants survive a pandemic winter?

Anxiety is running high in the restaurant industry, which has been staying afloat during the pandemic thanks in part to expanded patios with physical distancing. As cooler weather approaches, restaurant owners are foreseeing "dramatic" losses.

Anxiety is running high among restaurant owners who foresee 'dramatic' losses when patios close

Restaurateurs across Canada have put tables in parking lots, roadways and sidewalks across Canada for COVID-safe dining during the summer months, as seen in this enlarged patio at The Birds & The Beets restaurant in Vancouver. But those profitable days are quickly coming to an end. (Submitted by Matthew Senecal-Junkeer)

Summer of 2020 has seen a patio season like no other.

Restaurateurs across Canada moved quickly early in the season to create or expand outdoor dining sections, giving themselves more physically distanced capacity, and COVID-cautious customers the confidence to dine out in fresh air.

But as the lazy, hazy days of summer draw to a close, fear of failure is surging.

"My wife and I both operate the business, and we aren't really sleeping too well," said Matthew Senecal-Junkeer, owner of The Birds & The Beets in Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood. The restaurant typically only has four to six outdoor seats, but this year the city allowed the couple to transform four parking spaces into a 50-seat patio.

"We were hitting capacity, we had every table virtually filled in our restaurant," said Senecal-Junkeer. "We just had a little preview of what winter could be like when we had a three-day rainy streak in Vancouver, and it meant about a 42 per cent decline from what our sales were the week prior."

Survival at stake

In Windsor, Ont., John McKibbon is also worried.

"I'd be lying if I said we don't have anxiety going into the fall and winter," said McKibbon, who co-owns the Sandbar Waterfront Grill as well as John Max Sports & Wings.

"We've had people come to the restaurant wanting to sit outside, and when we've been full outside and only had tables indoors, some of those customers have decided not to dine with us that day," he said.

McKibbon and his partners transformed an outdoor volleyball court at one of their two sports bars into a physically distanced patio on the sand.

A volleyball court at John Max Sports & Wings in Windsor has been converted for patio dining. (Submitted by John McKibbon)

"We think the loss of the patios will have a pretty dramatic effect on our sales," he said. "There are different levels of anxiety with everyone."

Canada's food service sector typically employs 1.2 million people, and prior to the pandemic, served 22 million meals a day across the country, according to industry data.

Statistics Canada recently released the results of a May survey on business conditions. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce crunched the numbers with a focus on restaurant operators, and concluded that 60 percent of participants don't expect to survive more than three months with the current physical distance restrictions in place.

Already a significant number of restaurants across Canada have closed permanently.

Chamber president and CEO Perrin Beatty urged Canadians to take political action to encourage further financial support of the industry. "Everyone also needs to remind their elected representatives of the importance of our restaurants in our lives," said Beatty in a press release.

'We're not health experts'

The Chamber has teamed up with 60 of the best-known restaurant brands in Canada, along with other hospitality organizations, to launch a campaign called Our Restaurants.  It's also produced an ad promoting the industry on social media platforms.

But the industry's own association, Restaurants Canada, is hesitant to push too hard to relax seating requirements, especially as a second wave of the virus begins to build.

"We're not health experts," said Mark von Schellwitz, Restaurant Canada's vice-president for western Canada. "But a number of members have approached us to point out that the World Health Organization guidelines for physical distancing is one meter, not two meters. If we had a one meter distance instead of two that obviously would increase our capacity, and that would be really helpful."

Von Schellwitz is part of a hospitality industry group that is lobbying the federal government to launch a national campaign to boost consumer confidence in dining out. He pointed to a program in the United Kingdom called "Eat Out to Help Out," where dine-in customers could receive a 50 per cent discount on their meals throughout the month of August, up to £10 (about $17) per person.

The program ended up costing the government more than expected, as millions of Britons jumped at the incentive, running up a tab of £522 million ($900 million).

A bearded man wearing a teal shirt and backwards cap.
Matthew Senecal-Junkeer of The Birds & The Beets restaurant in Vancouver. (Submitted by Matthew Senecal-Junkeer)

But in Vancouver, Matthew Senecal-Junkeer is counting on one thing: his landlord.

"They are asking for full rent now," he said. "And we've had the wage subsidy and we had the patio, so we were able and willing to pay it. But I indicated to them yesterday that look, come October, it's not I'm saying I don't want to pay — it's just there simply is no cash in the bank."

Calls for more support

The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy has helped many restaurateurs, and has been extended until December, but the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program expired at the end of August.

Based in Charlottetown, PEI, Kevin and Kathy Murphy own 16 food and beverage operations in three Atlantic provinces, along with the Prince Edward Island Brewing Company. Patios have always been a big part of their business, but they've already closed down their Fishbones Oyster Bar & Seafood Grill early for the season, and are thinking hard about others.

Federal government announced that financial supports for businesses will be extended from Sept 25. until October 23rd. But Business owners in the travel sector, like John McKay, say this isn't enough to get them back where they were pre-pandemic. (Murphy Hospitality Group)

"Do we need three restaurants in one street?" asked Murphy. "So we're thinking, do we close one in October or November? And just go with the other two? We're also looking at days of the week. Do we go to five days a week versus seven days a week?"

PEI has enacted some of Canada's strictest policies related to the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing restaurants a maximum of 50 patrons at any time, regardless of a venue's size.

Murphy and other tourism entrepreneurs in the area have banded together to lobby the government for further financial support.

"You do what you have to do to survive and put plans in place to get there," says Murphy, noting that the industry has always been characterized by resourcefulness and creativity. But he also has a warning for restaurant lovers across the country, about how entrepreneurs have to approach business: "You will not stay open if you're not making money."