Nfld. & Labrador

Restaurants forced to weather the storm through pandemic

"I thought we were going to have to close our doors, and that scared me," Route 66 Diner and Pub owner Pauline Yetman said.

Pandemic forcing restaurants to reinvent, rework business

Elise Stewart is the co-founder of Sugar Mama's bakery in St. John's. (Kelly Hynes Curties Photography)

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, restaurants are having to adapt to stay afloat.

Elise Stewart, owner of the family-run Sugar Mama's Bakery in St. John's and Mount Pearl, said the first few weeks of the pandemic were full of uncertainty and questions.

"As soon as everything started, we had a lot of cancellations, birthdays weren't going ahead, weddings aren't going ahead," Stewart told CBC Radio's Weekend AM. "So we had to do a lot of refunds and we didn't think we were going to make it."

Pauline Yetman, owner of Route 66 Diner and Pub in Carbonear, faced similar hurdles when things changed right around the St. Patrick's Day weekend.

"I thought we were going to have to close our doors, and that scared me," Yetman said. "We're a new business, we've only been open now 18 months, and we just had to try to reinvent ourselves."

Both businesses say they have lost customers and had to lay off staff as a result of the pandemic, but have been able to adapt to weather the storm. The bakery has been offering things like curbside pickup and delivery on sweets, and has seen a surge in orders for the store's take-home cinnamon bun kits.

"Every year we've done them as the take home kit for Christmas.… When things kind of switched over to this, we were like, 'Well, maybe people would enjoy doing that at home," Stewart said.

"As soon as we posted them, they have taken off.… Definitely over 100 families were eating our cinnamon buns for Easter morning."

Pauline Yetman, right, who owns Route 66 Diner and Pub in Carbonear, says the diner has had to reinvent itself over the pandemic, shifting from chicken wings to Chinese food. (Submitted by Pauline Yetman)

Yetman said business at the diner and pub has dropped by almost 85 per cent as a result of the pandemic, but things are starting to bounce back as they adapt. She accounts the increase in business to a new takeout order system, as well as menu items that might not be found in a regular pub.

"We have changed from wings and beer to Chinese food," Yetman said.

"We've always done fish and chips and wings and liver and onions and all those good things.… We did Chinese for one Wednesday night — it was an overwhelming success. So we've gone from doing it one Wednesday, to Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday every week."

I'm not sure people are going to feel comfortable for a long time.- Elise Stewart

As the province moved to Alert Level 4 on Monday, restaurants still have some time before things begin to look like normal.

According to the provincial government's COVID-19 plan, restaurants won't have the ability to reopen dining areas until Alert Level 3, with bars being unable to open until Alert Level 2 is reached. 

By the time the province reaches Level 2, Stewart hopes her employees and customers will be more willing to come back into the bakery.

"I'm just hoping as things get better people feel more comfortable being able to work," Stewart said.

"As for having people dine in … I'm not sure people are going to feel comfortable for a long time."

Yetman said she is fortunate to have two floors at Route 66, allowing for physical distancing to be maintained once dining rooms reopen.

"We will be able to meet the demand, when and if we get busy."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Weekend AM