British Columbia

B.C. restaurateurs ponder future of dining as COVID-19 cases flatten

Whether it's a new restaurant, an established fine-dining restaurant, or a small family restaurant, everyone is wondering how safety measures can be implemented, and at what cost.

Owners wonder how safety measures can be implemented, and at what cost

Sophia Lin, owner of Old Bird restaurant in Vancouver, opened her business in January after two years of planning. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

While there is no date set for when B.C. restaurants can safely reopen, one thing is certain: the dine-in experience is going to look and feel very different.

The B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association presented a preliminary strategy to the province on Thursday, just over a month after Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry ordered restaurants to close.

"You're going to see sanitation stations, you're going to see some of the staff wearing gloves and masks, which are probably the people handling the dishes and dish washing," Ian Tostenson, president of the association, said in an interview on CBC's On the Coast.

"You're going to see kitchens entirely separated from the public. You probably won't see too many seats at the bar unless there's Plexiglas and you're six feet away from the person next to you. You'll see social distancing all throughout the restaurant."

Tostenson says other measures being considered are temperature checks, and making sure customers waiting for tables or take-out stand apart from each other. 

While the industry waits to hear when and how it can reopen, restaurants of all sizes are going through similar financial struggles and adapting to stay afloat. 

Opening just before a pandemic 

Old Bird, a modern Chinese restaurant in Vancouver, closed for over a month and laid off its staff. On April 21, it started offering take-out only with a tweaked menu. 

The interior of Old Bird restaurant on Main Street, which is meant to be 'a place where people can sit closer, and you can feel people's elbows and maybe make friends,' says Lin. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The restaurant opened Jan. 16, and is owner Sophia Lin's first restaurant. She said it took two years of planning to open an eatery with an intimate setting that would serve shared dishes inspired by Chinese street food and "our grandma's cooking."

"When we opened our doors in January, I was so happy because everything was exactly what I wanted and the concept was exactly what I had envisioned and ... everything was just perfect," she told CBC's The Early Edition.

"And obviously after two months, when COVID-19 happened, it was ... very hard for me to grasp the situation, and very hard to adapt quickly. I was very scared for the future as well."

Lin says she may only offer take-out for a while longer, because she is not sure some of the physical distancing requirements are viable. 

"We're supposed to be a place where people can sit closer, and you can feel people's elbows and maybe make friends," she said.

"And now you can't do that. It just doesn't make sense for the staff and for the community to come in and not feel the vibe. It's not going to be the same."

All in the same boat

After 35 years at his eponymous fine dining restaurant, John Bishop was going to retire in August.

But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Bishop has delayed his retirement. He is planning to offer take-out in the next few weeks.

Bishop’s restaurant owner John Bishop is pictured inside his empty restaurant in Vancouver on Thursday. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

While his landlord is waiving his rent, Bishop still finds himself in the same boat as most other restaurant owners, needing to lay off staff — some of whom have worked with him for decades — and relying on federal and provincial relief. 

"There's this sort of impression or veneer that obviously [dining out] is a luxury, it ... is discretionary and there must be a lot of money [in] it," he said.

"But in actual fact, especially in the recent years, our industry reflects exactly what's going on in the economy. There's ups and downs." 

Bishop says he is hopeful that customers will return to dine in. He is already considering how to seat customers safely when he eventually reopens.

'It was just the right decision to close'

For the past four years, Jennifer Nguyen and her parents have been running Broken Rice, a Vietnamese restaurant in Burnaby.

In mid-March, they laid off staff and shut down the restaurant. It has stayed closed ever since because the family isn't confident revenue from take-out orders would be enough to cover overhead costs.

From left, Hiet Nguyen, Jennifer Nguyen, Xi Phan, and Steven Nguyen are pictured outside of their closed restaurant in Burnaby on Thursday. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"Our goal was to remain open, because [my parents] felt they had a duty to serve customers and to keep staff working," Nguyen said.

"But because of all this, they were really concerned for the safety of our staff and customers, too. They were also afraid for themselves, so over time, it was just the right decision to close."

Nguyen says her parents had worked in labour jobs before taking over the restaurant. Her mother dreamed of owning a small family business that would be less physically demanding, and could generate a steady income for the family.

Closing the restaurant was a difficult decision, as her parents never take time away from the business except on Christmas and New Year's, she said.

But on the bright side, Nguyen says this has forced her parents to take a break.

"They've been working every single day, so hard, every day since we got the restaurant," she said. "So it's nice to see them at home relaxing".


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