Despite setbacks, Quebec restaurants focus on being creative, flexible to weather the pandemic

One out of five restaurants in Quebec has decided to shift to take-out and deliveries, in order "to keep their head above water," according to the province's restaurant association.

Businesses hold their breath, with no sign of reopening dining rooms soon

Chef Benoît Lacourse, left, and cook Mathieu Vachon helped create a take-out menu for the Quebec City restaurant Le Cendrillon, after the government ordered all businesses to close their dining rooms. (Submitted by Carl Dumas)

Running a kitchen without customers in the dining room clashes with the very reason why Carl Dumas got into the business in the first place.

"We like the rush, the noise," said Dumas, co-owner of oyster and charcuterie hot spot Le Cendrillon, in Quebec City's Limoilou neighbourhood. 

"What we miss the most is having people over, talking to people — just the general atmosphere," Dumas said.

Le Cendrillon is one of several restaurants in the province that nonetheless decided to keep cooking when the government ordered all dining rooms to close on March 15.

The restaurant staff brainstormed, and decided to offer elaborate dishes like poached octopus and crispy pork belly for take-out, a business model Dumas never thought would work before the COVID-19 pandemic "because of the complexity of our dishes and the quality we try to serve the customers on site."

But the experience has been positive so far, he said, with regulars arriving to pick up a fancy dinner most wouldn't be able to make at home.

"They really seem to miss not only the food quality, but the pleasure of going out," said Dumas.

While the government has authorized the gradual reopening of several businesses starting May 4, it has yet to set a date for restaurants. They can only offer take-out service for the time being.

Not having a calendar to work with is problematic, said Martin Vézina, a spokesperson for the Quebec Restaurant Association (ARQ), because businesses can't start planning their inventory or contact their producers.

"We're not a shoe store," said Vézina. "Our supplies can't just sit there."

Demands for government to delay fees

Only about 20 per cent of the ARQ's 5,600 members have chosen to stay open, like Le Cendrillon did, many doing so "simply to keep their head above water" to cover their monthly fees for loans and rent, said Vézina.

One of out of every two independent restaurants in Canada won't survive the crisis, if conditions don't improve over the next three months, according to a Restaurants Canada survey published on April 23.

The ARQ has sent recommendations to the government that could help alleviate some of that financial stress — by postponing payments for permits and municipal taxes, for example.

Vézina also wants the province to present clear guidelines soon, as it did for the construction industry, to allow restaurants time to redesign their dining rooms and outdoor patios while respecting public health rules.

"If it looks like a hospital, people won't come," he said.

Quebec City announced on April 20 it is drastically cutting back on the price for outdoor patio permits, from up to $3,300 a year to $50, an initiative Dumas welcomes.

Mathieu Vachon, a cook at the Quebec City restaurant Le Cendrillon, is one of the employees who stayed on to offer a take-out menu to customers. (Submitted by Carl Dumas)

He said Le Cendrillon is counting on its street-side tables to be able to serve more customers, while respecting physical distancing.

Having only 50 per cent of the dining room open isn't profitable, Dumas said, and not sustainable in the long term. He is nonetheless optimistic, saying he can count on his "creative team."

"It is going to be complicated and it's going to be costly, but everything's gonna be OK I think," said Dumas, anxious to rehire the dozen of so employees he had to let go in March.

'Big responsibility'

Isabelle Hubert said having a smaller business, with fewer employees and expenses, is making it easier for her to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

She closed her small café in New Carlisle, in the Gaspé, on March 23, after an outbreak in the community.

Hubert and her daughter self-isolated, as a precaution, because "there was a chance" they had been in contact with a person who had contracted the virus.

Hubert wanted to make sure her family, who lives on the second floor of Café Luna, stayed healthy, and wanted "to start fresh again and make sure there's no danger to anybody."

"I'm very aware of the fact we're dealing with people's food," said Hubert. "I mean there is a big responsibility there."

Café Luna, in New Carlisle, will soon be reopening to offer take-out items to local customers. (Submitted by Isabelle Hubert)

After hitting pause for more than a month, she is starting to think of a way she'll be able to offer some of her homemade dishes, including getting all the packaging materials needed for take-out and delivery service.

With low expectations for the 2020 tourism season, Hubert is nonetheless optimistic her "good, local clientele" will make it possible to make it through, "keeping in mind it is temporary."

"From my own point of view, for myself being a very small business, I think it makes me a little more flexible," she said.

With files from Quebec AM

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