More than 10K jobs lost in N.L. food service: industry group
'It was the toughest thing I've ever had to do,' says Merchant Tavern co-owner
The co-owner of two restaurants in downtown St. John's knew his businesses were going to have to close amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was a decision that still weighs heavily on him.
While Jeremy Bonia said it was the right call, it was a hard one to make — shutting down Raymonds and the Merchant Tavern meant laying off about 100 employees.
"Honestly, it was the toughest thing I've ever had to do," said Bonia.
"[With] small businesses, your employees are like your family.… And then to have to let everybody go and put everybody in that kind of state of limbo ... it's not a good feeling, at all. It's horrible."
Bonia's restaurants are not the only establishments facing tough decisions in uncertain times.
According to Restaurants Canada, a not-for-profit organization that represents restaurant owners and operators across the country, about 800,000 food service jobs countrywide have been lost since March 1 due to COVID-19.
That includes more than 10,000 jobs in Newfoundland and Labrador — and the threat looms of that number ballooning further.
Staggering losses, startling stats
A recent Restaurants Canada survey of its members painted a grim landscape.
According to the data, four out of five restaurants across the country have laid off employees since the beginning of March.
The industry has been devastated by COVID.- Luc Erjavec
It noted that, if conditions in the industry don't improve, seven out of 10 operators will have to make further cutbacks on staff hours or jobs.
The survey also showed about one out of every 10 restaurants have already closed permanently, and another 18 per cent are heading toward that same fate within a month, if the current situation doesn't start to look up.
"The industry has been devastated by COVID," said Luc Erjavec, Restaurants Canada vice-president of the Atlantic region.
"We expect to lose about $200 million in sales in Newfoundland and Labrador in the next quarter."
Erjavac said that is a startling statistic, since Newfoundland and Labrador's $1.1-billion food service industry represents about three per cent of the province's GDP.
"At the same time, we still have bills to pay, and it's tough," he said.
"We are in a very, very difficult position, and we need help."
Group wants province to step up to the plate
Erjavec said the province needs to take the lead if the industry is to survive this pandemic.
"The government of Newfoundland and Labrador has been absent from the business-side perspective, and we need them [at the table]," he said.
Erjavec said the province should work with landlords on rent-deferral protection, so businesses can't be locked out or evicted.
He also suggested the government work with municipalities to figure out a plan for commercial business taxes.
"How can a small business that is closed expect to pay commercial business taxes when there is no business happening?" Erjavec said.
He said Newfoundland and Labrador should also follow in the footsteps of other provinces, and allow takeout operations to sell alcohol.
Erjavec said these steps don't come with a cost, and could help ease the burden on the industry.
"Every little bit helps at this point," he said.
Province explored alcohol delivery sales
The Department of Finance said the province is working with the federal government, as this situation unfolds, to advance programs that support small businesses and employees.
In an emailed statement, the department noted that curbside delivery of food products has been allowed during the pandemic. And craft breweries have been permitted to sell their products curbside as well.
"We explored the option of allowing alcohol sales via delivery from restaurants, and brought the issue to the joint committee dealing with COVID-19 response," said Finance Minister Tom Osborne.
"While we had a good discussion, these changes would require introduction of legislation to accomplish. There are many considerations for such a shift, including how age verification is confirmed."
Osborne said implementing such a change without due consideration of these issues would be irresponsible.
Chef Todd Perrin knows the struggles of the restaurant industry.
"We're particularly vulnerable in our business, because we're so reliant on that daily cash flow and anything that disrupts missing a Thursday, or a Friday, or a Saturday — it just has a very direct effect on your ability to proceed," he said.
"The closure — be it a Snowmageddon event or a global pandemic — these holes that get blown in our revenue are gone forever."
As a co-owner, Perrin said he felt the effects of the pandemic right away. Mallard Cottage in Quidi Vidi was closed (as well as its related inn next door); Waterwest Kitchen and Meats in St. John's changed its service to takeout only.
Across those three businesses, Perrin said, they had to lay off almost 70 employees. There are now only a dozen people on the job.
With changing safety measures, Waterwest later shifted to curbside pickup — which has led to a drop in sales.
Perrin said he's unhappy with what he's heard out of Ottawa to date, noting that waiting six weeks for money is not sustainable for their current operating model.
"It's not enough to pay the bills, really, but in the interest of trying to kind of wait out until we see what level of [federal government] support is going to be there," he said.
"It's really just an exercise in keeping some of our staff operational and not having to go through the process of closing the business [which also has associated costs]."
Trying to remain optimistic
Perrin said the near-term future of Waterwest will depend on this week — how well the business does, and what new challenges come with the evolving COVID-19 situation.
"[It's] going to be a big teller in terms of what we're going to be able to do for the next number of months," he said.
But through it all, Perrin said he remains hopeful.
"I've been joking that it's bobbing and weaving, but it's certainly the most trying thing that we've ever gone through," he said.
"Our goal is always to keep rolling, and we'll do whatever we can, personally and businesswise, to do that."
The team will hold strategy meetings early next week to try to figure out a path forward.
"[It's a] combination of how the level of business is … how our staff is feeling, how we're able to maintain a safe environment for our staff to work in, and maintain a safe environment for ourselves and our customers," he said.
"[We're] dedicated to make it happen, if we can."