The road to normal? Restaurant staff dish on the return to indoor dining

Restaurants have reopened, including for indoor dining, for what staff hope is the road to normal. Andrew Coppolino spoke with a number of local wait staff who told him how they felt about Ontario's move to Step 3.

Wait staff encourage people to be patient after a long time away from indoor dining

Ryan Horne of Scran and Dram in New Hamburg said the transition to re-opening was relatively simple. "This is our third time re-opening, so it's just a matter of cleaning and polishing and re-arranging," he said. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Giuseppe Barranca, one of the partners at Vita Lounge and Bistro in Kitchener, has never known a pre-pandemic "normal" at his restaurant, which opened about a year ago. 

The safety precautions and protocols of lockdown have been part of their regular business model, according to Barranca.

"We've never been able to deliver our full experience in the design and atmosphere as well as the food here. Instead, our number one concern is for the safety of our customers and for my staff," he said.

With this re-opening, Barranca hopes things are different: the restaurant has indoor dining, a large patio covered by an open-sided tent and an uncovered patio for guests to select.

"With the re-opening after this lockdown, we spent weeks preparing protocols to ensure everyone's safety," he said.

Vita's focus will be on indoor dining, which, obviously, doesn't have to cope with the vagaries of weather.

Barranca adds that in this first week, everyone is happy to be able to eat inside again.

"It's been a positive experience with customers and staff. We haven't had any resistance," he said.

Working the front-of-house at Vita, Luca Galati is similarly positive.

"We're all excited for the new opening. We had enough time to prepare ourselves, and it's exciting seeing a lot of people enjoying themselves inside and outside," Galati said.

Luca Galati, left, and Giuseppe Barranca of Vita Lounge & Bistro. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Third time reopening

In New Hamburg, Scran and Dram Scottish Public House has had a large number of customers on their large patios — the weather is the prime driver — with a few tables of customers inside, for which the transition was relatively simple, according to manager Ryan Horne.

"This is our third time reopening, so it's just a matter of cleaning and polishing and re-arranging. Measuring tables and distancing everything and making sure everything is compliant. Realistically, it's a pretty smooth transition for us," Horne said, noting that while capacity inside is 160 people, the dining room has been significantly reduced to meet distancing requirements.

The first few days didn't see a significant increase in people wanting to be inside, Horne said.

"I think people are still hesitant or just want to see how things go a little bit. There's a lot of faces that we haven't seen for a while, whether they don't like the heat outside or are waiting until they feel safer," he said.

The quick announcement that indoor dining can open once again does mean extra work for waitstaff, says Devon Campbell, who heads up White Rabbit bar's operations in uptown Waterloo.

"It's exhausting mentally having to re-do it every time but more so because there are different guidelines to follow every single time," Campbell said.

"It's not like what we were doing last time. There's a whole new set of guidelines, there's a whole new stage, there's a whole new colour."

'There's a lot of anxiety'

While Campbell, Horne and other waitstaff have reported some anger and rudeness from a few customers over the requirements, for the most part the first week of re-opening has been civil.

"There's a lot of anxiety out there and there's a lot of uncertainty of what's going on," Horne said.

"We've seen a lot of people who are very sympathetic to what's going on and there are a few others who don't really care."

Campbell, for her part, said she's detected a slightly different tone — what she refers to as "people's state of mind" — in some customers: she chalks that up to frustration caused by many months in lockdown and isolation.

"People have been cooped up for so long and have been going through so much so long there's a lot of extended mental health issues that me and my staff are dealing with," Campbell said.

"That's actually a little bit more terrifying sometimes than the actual safety of COVID. The level of aggression is a little higher just because of what the country and the world has gone through."

Devon Campbell of White Rabbit in uptown Waterloo says takeout numbers are have not been on the decline. (Andrew Coppolino/ CBC)

What's kept the situation under control as the bar has prepared to re-open is adherence to protocols, she said.

"We are really good at staying on top of what our safety procedures are. When we follow the guidelines, the staff feels safe," she said.

Galati at Vita is guardedly confident as a frontline staffer about worker safety.

"I am a bit worried. But we're really pushing the regulations of keeping masks on and sanitizing your hands. We want to make everyone comfortable showing everyone we are comfortable with the regulations," he said.

Demand for takeout

Another indication of a possible new normal is that for all three venues takeout business continues to be strong, marking a slight shift in how customers are choosing to support local restaurants and maintain distancing.

Horne said the community has rallied around Scran and Dram.

"We have had huge support from the community and record sales. In the five years we've been here, we've never seen numbers like we're hitting now. We expect to go beyond that," said Horne.

It's the same at White Rabbit, a popular late-night venue that before the pandemic packed guests into the small restaurant and bar. Campbell said that takeout numbers are certainly not in decline.

"Our takeout program is still booming. It's very strong in comparison to what it was after the re-opening last time," she said.

"I feel like a lot of people who don't feel comfortable dining inside or outside just aren't coming out."

'Be kind. Be patient'

Moving forward to whatever normal will evolve into, waitstaff across the board have the same message for customers, even though we've been here before: it has to do with respect.

"Kick back, relax and have a good time, but remember your manners and be kind. Be patient," said Horne. "It's a different time for everybody."

For Campbell, returning to indoor dining isn't like flipping a switch, and she encourages patience in these early days after a long time away from indoor dining.

"The normalcy of what we have been doing in this job has changed and people are out of practice," she said.

"Just be patient with your servers and bartenders. They're in charge of so much more than what this job used to be making sure the protocols and safety measures are being followed every minute of every guest's experience. People are forgetting how much is on these servers' plates."


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