Thanks to COVID-19, these restaurants will never be the same

CBC spoke with a trio of local restaurateurs who pivoted to survive COVID-19, and are now reflecting on what the post-pandemic landscape will look like.

Restaurateurs dish about their post-COVID plans

Manager Thanh Pham stands outside Arnprior Viet Subs, one of his new restaurants. Pham decided to close Kanata Noodle House in Orléans in large part because it offered buffet-style dining, something that's unrealistic in COVID-19 times. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

From papered-over windows to for-lease signs, it's easy for people to see how hard the restaurant industry has been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the specific details, however, have remained hidden.

Restaurants that have survived did so by changing up their offerings. High-end establishments pivoted to takeout. Eateries that never dreamed they'd have to partner with third-party delivery apps and their high commissions reluctantly signed up. 

We wanted to find out more, so we spoke to three local restaurateurs who've made big changes over the past year — and for whom those changes could well become permanent.

The Kanata Noodle House Vietnamese Buffet in Orléans was a business casualty of COVID-19. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Bye-bye buffet

Among the early casualties was the buffet — and some restaurants, like The Kanata Noodle House Vietnamese Buffet, couldn't survive without it.

The Orléans restaurant tried to keep afloat by offering takeout, but it wasn't enough, said manager Thanh Pham. Nor could it switch from buffet-style to a more traditional server-driven restaurant.

"Instead of customers grabbing their own food, touching all the utensils, we'd have to serve the customers. Then we had to bring in more employees to serve each dish," said Pham.

"It was a very difficult decision, but it had to be made."

Why buffets may not have much of a future — even after the pandemic

2 years ago
Duration 1:06
Thanh Pham, who used to run Kanata Noodle House Vietnamese Buffet, says he had to close the restaurant after COVID-19 hit. Now, he’s pivoting to a more pandemic-friendly alternative — a takeout-only banh mi shop.

Pham said he worries about his long-time staff who've been laid off, and believes that even after COVID-19 ends, buffet-style restaurants may never recover.

"I don't know if anything's going to go back to normal." he said."People are still hesitant to come in. Everyone's still scared to sit down in a place and enjoy their meal."

Pham and the Kanata Noodle House family of restaurants have now found other opportunities with lower overhead in the Ottawa Valley. They've opened up the Arnprior Noodle House in a former KFC restaurant, and a Bánh mì sandwhich shop and bubble tea joint along the town's main drag.

Restaurateur Surinder Singh runs Last Train to Delhi in the Glebe. Singh's restaurant only started offering takeout to survive the pandemic, but he says he plans to keep it going. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Turning to takeout

At Last Train to Delhi, owner Surinder Singh had to quickly switch to a new way of doing things.

Unlike many Indian cuisine restaurants in Ottawa, Singh's upscale 20-seat restaurant in the Glebe didn't offer takeout or delivery. 

"I only served fine dining," said Singh, who opened Last Train to Delhi in 2019. "To sit in and enjoy the meal."

When the pandemic struck, Singh had to regroup. Takeout was the first thing he tried, and the restaurant swiftly discovered a new, hungry demographic.

"Before, it would be only a couple who would come and enjoy the dinner. Now we're reaching out to families," said Singh.

Singh says the new takeout model has downsides, especially since he used to taking pride in the plating. The food is no longer garnished "perfectly," he says, and sometimes diners open up their takeout order and "everything is shaken up." 

But even after COVID, Singh won't abandon takeout, especially as he's not sure when indoor dining will return to full capacity.

"I'm going to keep going," he said. "It's much easier to survive that way."

Chef Michael Blackie of NeXT restaurant in Stittsville, seen here in a crowded kitchen before the COVID-19 pandemic. Blackie says he plans to continue spacing out his dining after the pandemic in order to make it easier on his 'back of house' staff. (Nicole Farough)

Adversity breeds innovation

From compressing his menu to shortening his week, Michael Blackie of NeXT restaurant in Stittsville has made big changes to survive COVID-19. 

Some of them he plans to maintain even after the pandemic eases, like being open only Wednesday through Sunday.

"Notoriously in this town, Mondays and Tuesdays are not good. I probably won't reopen those days again," said Blackie.

Blackie also introduced staggered seating to comply with indoor dining limits, something that he'd love to keep as it spreads out demand and makes for a more manageable pace in the kitchen.

He's also a fan of NeXT's internationally themed meal kits, which come with a video describing how to prepare them.

"[There's] no labour in the front of the house because everything goes out in a box. People wash their own dishes. But they get to have something different than the same old, same old. They get to have Michael Blackie in their house," the chef said.

"I do believe I fundamentally have a new revenue stream here. That's a huge game-changer."

Something else Blackie plans to keep going after the pandemic? No more paper menus. Instead, patrons will keep using their smartphones to scan a QR code, which links to a menu. 

The bottom line, he says, is that COVID-19 has forced innovation.

"[There are] huge creative opportunities, because ultimately, when you're on your own … you come up with creative ideas," he said.

"When you have such a tumultuous turnaround like a pandemic, it makes you re-evaluate everything."

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