Adapt or die: A new rallying cry for Calgary restaurant owners

Jordan Castrillon and his business partner opened up their low-carb, high energy café in Inglewood late last year, but COVID-19 forced them to upend their business model. He says if they didn't change, the pandemic would have killed their business.

Eateries navigate COVID restrictions, fewer customers and new business models

A man wearing a mask walks outside near Café Wisk in Inglewood. The restaurant is no longer offering dine-in service and will instead focus on takeout, online ordering and new business partnerships to try to survive the impact of COVID-19. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Café Wisk partners Jordan Castrillon and Evan Dunn opened their low-carb, high energy eatery in Inglewood late last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to upend their business model.

Castrillon says if they didn't change, the pandemic would have killed their business. 

Restaurant owners across the city face the same challenges. They've been allowed to reopen, but new health restrictions have added extra costs, and seating limits have reduced not only the amount of people they can serve but also their profits.

During the peak of the pandemic, it's estimated the sector shed 95,000 jobs — two-thirds of the entire workforce in Alberta, according to Restaurants Canada, an industry advocacy group.

Owners face a new normal that includes convincing skittish diners to come back to their restaurants, which might feel more like a visit to the hospital since servers are required to wear gloves and face masks.

Café Wisk, the small quick-serve restaurant in Inglewood, had seating for only a dozen or so people. But new health regulations made Castrillon and Dunn realize dine-in service in such a tight space wouldn't work.

So the tables have been stacked up or moved together to display dozens of bags of buns that are ready for delivery or pickup. 

The keto-friendly, gluten-free buns along with some cream-filled desserts are pretty much the only items that survived the menu purge. Paninis, sandwiches and soups have been dropped.

Jordan Castrillon, right, and Evan Dunn opened Café Wisk in Inglewood last November. They were forced to change their business model as a result of the global pandemic. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Castrillon says the pandemic forced him and his business partners to rejig the menu and their entire business model. He says if they didn't pivot to focus on takeout and online ordering, they wouldn't have survived.

He compares the past few months to a hellish winter storm.

"It's like you're in this fog or whiteout blizzard and you can only see a metre in front of you"

Castrillon says they closed the café for a week to regroup and relaunch with their buns and desserts taking centre stage. Pictures were taken of the tasty treats, and their website was overhauled to highlight their new takeout-only operation. The focus is now on online ordering, building new partnerships with other restaurants and increasing their social media presence.

It was all part of their longer-term plan, but COVID-19 prompted the immediate reboot.

"If I hadn't had an online presence, if I hadn't gone and done my website, I literally, last month, that would have been game over."

He says his investors — his parents and brother — would have suffered tens of thousands of dollars in losses.

"We have a lot at stake."

And the fog has yet to lift for his business and arguably the entire restaurant industry.

The future of dine-in

Ede Rodrigues and his wife opened up Gaucho Brazilian Barbecue on Macleod Trail a decade ago. They also have a location in Canmore.

One of the highlights of the Gaucho dine-in experience has been a server delivering a skewer loaded with meat right to your table. The carver would shave off some beef and place it on your plate. That tradition has been put on the chopping block.

A server will now stand behind a newly constructed Plexiglas cart where another server will gather an order and then deliver it to your table.

It's unclear if the Gaucho salad bar and buffet will ever come back.

And, of course, they're allowed only half of their full capacity, to ensure proper physical distancing in the restaurant.

Fifty per cent capacity is how the owners describe a "very, very quiet" night at the restaurant. It's not enough to pay the bills or keep his servers happy. 

Ede Rodrigues owns Gaucho Brazilian Barbecue locations in Calgary and Canmore. Both were closed for two months as a result of the pandemic but have since reopened. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

"The servers, the cooks, they're all talking about … 'wow, how much work it is and the money is not there,'" Rodrigues said.

The family business has received assistance from the federal government through a small business loan and is using the 75 per cent wage subsidy to pay the roughly 16 employees who've agreed to come back to both locations.

"Without that, I don't think we'd be able to really reopen."

Rodrigues says he's "extremely" worried about the future of his business, but he's trying to stay positive.

"I believe the future will be better, it's just going to take a little time," he said.

He says he hopes that once people understand all of the cleaning and safety precautions that are being done, customers will feel more confident and will come back. 

"We just got to hold on." 

Will restaurants recover? 

Restaurants Canada says a survey of its members showed that half of independent restaurant owners did not pay their rent in April and May and a quarter of them did that without permission from their landlords to postpone those payments.

The group's vice-president for Western Canada says even with a federal wage subsidy and a possible break on rent, many operators may not be able to survive because of the limited seating capacity. He says a big hurdle is the increased startup costs related to the new health and safety requirements for restaurants. 

"Many of them, especially the smaller ones, are saying, 'I need some sort of working capital to be able to reopen because I've used all my reserves,'" said Mark von Schellwitz. 

Sous chef Adriel Santa Maria prepares one of the sauces for resumption of limited service at Bonterra Trattoria, one of the city's hundreds of restaurants shuttered since the coronavirus pandemic. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

He says new training and cleaning protocols along with PPE (personal protective equipment) and Plexiglas requirements can cost as much as $20,000 for some operators.

He believes the provincial government should offer startup grants for operators to help cover those costs.

Von Schellwitz says the survey showed 10 per cent of restaurant operators across the country have already decided to close permanently. While others are taking a wait-and-see approach to gauge how the reopened restaurants are faring and whether customers actually want to come back.

Set to relaunch

Calgary's Creative Restaurants Group didn't swing open its doors when the province moved to Stage 1 of the economic relaunch on May 25 in Calgary.

The group, which owns and operates Cibo 17th, Bonterra Trattoria, Free House and others, is still putting together its operational plans, which include new seating arrangements, safety measures for staff and customers and securing all of the necessary PPE  for servers and kitchen staff. It's also building new dividers for its patios. 

Cibo 17th, part of the Creative Restaurant Group of restaurants in Calgary, remains closed to dine-in service. The group, which owns or manages eight restaurants in the city, is still implementing health and safety protocols before resuming sit-down service later this month. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

"It's been a challenge, it's been hard," said executive chef Glen Manzer, who is also the group's chief operating officer.

"We just wanted to take it a little bit slower … talk with the staff a little bit, make sure their safety's there, and that the guests feel safe and comfortable in our spaces," said Manzer.

They expect the 50 per cent occupancy rule to remain in place through the summer, if not longer.

The company just launched pickup and delivery service at some of its restaurants this week and is planning to reopen some locations June 17. 

Manzer says one of the biggest challenges is going to be trying to make everyone feel comfortable in a new environment that will feel much different than what dinners are used to. He expects the "new normal" — spacing between tables, servers wearing masks and gloves, dividers between tables — to be around for months. 

"It's gonna be hard to try and make people feel comfortable while we're wearing gloves and masks," he said.

'Opportunity hidden in every disaster'

Back at Café Wisk, Castrillon says he's feeling positive about the future since his team has adopted their new business model.

"There's opportunity hidden in every disaster," he said.

While earlier plans to expand may be on hold, he's confident they're on the right track.

And he has some advice for others in the industry who are also looking to diversify from dine-in only service. He says the shift to takeout and a push to get his products into other restaurants and shops might help weather this storm because he feels the status quo is untenable.

"If they're not adjusting … they're like sitting ducks," said Castrillon.

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.


Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.