Despite brush with COVID-19, restaurateur eager to reopen dining rooms to Edmontonians

A restaurant owner who has experienced COVID-19 firsthand is eager to reopen in-person dining, saying it offers an outlet for Albertans struggling with the cold and pandemic restrictions.

Christian Mena suffered through COVID-19 diagnosis in early December

Christian Mena is co-owner of the downtown Sabor restaurant as well as four Bodega locations in Edmonton and St. Albert. (Submitted by Christian Mena)

A restaurant owner who has experienced COVID-19 firsthand is keen to reopen in-person dining, saying it will provide a lift for Albertans struggling with the cold and pandemic restrictions.

On Monday, the five establishments co-owned by Christan Mena — Sabor in downtown Edmonton and four Bodega locations in Edmonton and St. Albert — will join other Alberta dining rooms in reopening for guests under loosened provincial health restrictions. 

Some restaurants have chosen to keep their doors closed and continue on a takeout and delivery model. 

But Mena thinks differently.

"Some would say it's your responsibility to not open," he said during an interview for CBC's Radio Active. "I think it's our responsibility to open."

Mena said there is a mental health consideration at play.

Albertans were lucky during a warm December to hit the slopes and enjoy other outdoor activities but with a deep freeze setting in, they'll be turning to other indoor outlets.

"It's hard as a restaurant owner to go into a mall on a weekend and see packs of people and know that I have gone above and beyond to take care of my customers and know that I can't serve them," he said.

For Albertans, Mena said restaurants serve as a form of entertainment and refuge from the below-zero temperatures. He does not believe they are a large contributor to the spread of the disease.

"The question becomes: Do you want to see people flee to a mall on the weekends? Or do you want to see them come into a restaurant?"

Mena isn't underplaying the seriousness of COVID-19. In early December, he tested positive for it after a day of symptoms left him incapacitated and immobilized.

He believes he and his wife caught the disease from one of their two school-aged children. They complained of minor symptoms but were never confirmed. 

While the family isolated together, the restaurants closed down for between two weeks and 19 days.

"We did everything we could to make sure our customers and our staff, absolutely everyone was tested," he said.

Mena also has older parents who would be at particular risk with the disease. "It hits close to home," he said about the disease.

The restaurants have installed plexiglass separations, removed tables and followed restrictions introduced in early December.

Sabor even had its very personal delivery service. "Which is actually me in my car," Mena said.

Ready to close again

Mena said late December was generally good for business as Albertans made their holiday plans.

"Everybody was ordering, people were at home — we were in lockdown anyway. And everybody was trying to do anything to make the season feel like the season that we're accustomed to."

But the January slowdown was even slower than the typical drop-off. And while some businesses have seemingly flourished with pickup and delivery, an 8,500-square-foot restaurant like Sabor cannot.

"No amount of pickup or delivery is ever going to get anywhere close to what we're used to making," Mena said.

Staff are also eager to come back to work, he said.

Mena does worry about the spread of variants and the possibility he may have to close again due to an outbreak.

"It's certainly kept me up at night," he said. "And if the numbers go up, the numbers go up. Then we do what the government tells us to do and we have to close down, we have to close down.

"It's just the way it is."


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