Ottawa

These restaurants are finding the recipe for success in a pandemic

It's not fine dining, it's takeout. But it's turning out to be a lifeline for some restaurants shuttered by COVID-19. Pre-ordered, pre-paid, prix fixe menus are selling out fast. Overhead costs are way down. And if the profits aren't setting records, at least they're paying the bills.

With low overhead and a steady appetite for curbside pickup, business is booming

No big points for plating or presentation, but patrons of a brand new restaurant in Westboro are snapping up dinner to go nonetheless. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

It's not fine dining, it's takeout in a brown paper bag. But the new business model is turning out to be a lifeline for some restaurants shuttered by COVID-19. 

Pre-ordered, prepaid, prix fixe menus are selling out fast. Overhead costs are way down. And if the profits aren't setting records, at least they're paying the bills.

Here's how two restaurateurs are surviving, and maybe even thriving, through the pandemic.

NeXT

Owner-chef Michael Blackie and his wife Jillian were celebrating their 25th anniversary in Southeast Asia when COVID-19 hit. That cut their trip short, but it also gave Blackie an idea.

"In Bangkok they were doing daily temperature checks every time we came in the [hotel]," he said. "So [I said to my staff at Stittsville's NeXT], 'Guys, I want daily temperature checks. I want somebody at the door.' And they said, 'I don't think Ottawa is ready for that, chef.'"

Blackie closed his restaurant March 15, with a plan to revisit the decision every two weeks. "We'd just come off one of the best years that NeXT had ever seen. We had a bit of a war chest. So I thought, let's just chill."

Owner-chef Michael Blackie of NeXT in Stittsville works alongside his colleagues in the kitchen. This photo was taken before physical distancing rules took effect. (Nicole Farough)

About three weeks ago, Blackie reached out to his executive chef with a better idea: "Let's do NeXT 2.0. Let's figure this out."

The restaurant opened for takeout on April 23, offering curbside pickup. 

"We put it in your vehicle. There's no risk," Blackie said. "I've had people come up with Post-its on their windows and full vapour barriers inside their car. I'm like, 'You're just missing a biohazard suit, dude.'"

But they keep coming.

"I've blown my expectations out of the water," Blackie said. "I would say I'm within 80 per cent of my normal [dine-in] revenue. My best night was $10,250" — similar to a great night pre-pandemic, but "minus a lot of the overhead," he said.

"I have no front of the house service staff," Blackie said. "There are no glasses to clean. There's no cutlery to clean. There are no tables to reset. There are no toilets to have to clean up because the guests can't come into the building."  

I could actually go all the way until the vaccine's found.- Michael Blackie, NeXT

He's also working fewer hours per day than his typical pre-pandemic 13. "We're going into work around noon and we're leaving at 8 p.m."

Blackie said customers seem to prefer to pick up their orders rather than use a food delivery app. "[Patrons] show up as a couple," Blackie said. "I say, 'How was the drive date?'"

On the downside, weddings and corporate functions that used to represent a big part of Blackie's business have been cancelled or postponed.

"Am I going to be in the hole for thousands and thousands of dollars? I don't think so," he said. "Am I going to have the same profit as 2019? Absolutely not."

Blackie and his wife are so buoyed by the takeout success, they're opening a "ghost" restaurant next week called Dirtyburger. It'll be run out of the same kitchen, but with a different website and menu. 

"I could do this for another year. I could actually go all the way until the vaccine's found," Blackie said.

Arup Jana and Maggie Von Zur-Muehlen in front of their newly opened Westboro eatery, Brassica. Prepaid pickup orders are placed on an overturned milk crate, while chalk Xs on the sidewalk mark off two-metre spaces where customers can wait. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Brassica

It's been a rough 14 months for Arup Jana and his wife, Maggie Von Zur-Muehlen. Their Holland Avenue restaurant Allium burned down in March 2019. While waiting for reconstruction, they partnered with the owners of Vittoria in the Village, who were also waiting for a post-fire rebuild of their main restaurant in the ByWard Market.

Brassica opened at the end of January. Less than two months later, COVID-19 struck.

At first, Jana shut it all down. "I didn't really want to draw people out of their house, into the public. It felt really like it was important for people to stay home," he said.

But, "being home for three weeks and doing nothing was terrible," Jana said. "I mean, the first few days [it was] nice to be off. We had just opened the restaurant, so that was two months of craziness. But then it just got really old, very fast."

How one Ottawa restaurant is adapting to physical distancing

CBC News Ottawa

1 year ago
1:32
Arup Jana and Maggie Von Zur-Muehlen, co-owners of Brassica in Westboro, say they’ve reduced their volume, cut staff and created a system for picking up takeout orders that limits contact between customers. 1:32

Jana was also feeling financial pressure with the expensive Westboro rent. Their landlord had delayed their rent by a month, but they were still expected to pay in instalments.

So they figured out a way to offer takeout safely without using delivery apps. Jana takes orders and preps on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and they're open for pickup Friday through Sunday.

Jana is at capacity preparing about 80 portions a day. They post the menu on Tuesday morning on Instagram, and by 1 p.m. it's all sold out.

Still, that represents far fewer customers than their pre-pandemic business, when they could serve 120 in a night. "Our sales are down about 60 per cent or 70 per cent," he said.

I think we could do it for another couple of months.- Arup Jana, Brassica

So, too, is their payroll. From a staff of nine, they're down to just two: Jana and Von Zur-Muehlen. But what they're saving in staffing costs, they're losing because of their reduced prices. 

"We're not charging the same as we would if people were in the restaurant," Jana said. "We can't put thought and presentation into the [dishes]. It's less detailed."

So how long can they keep it up?

"I think we could do it for another couple of months," Jana said. "We really need to sit down and see where we are financially. We're definitely making some money, but I'm not sure exactly where we stand."

Nor is he sure what the future of his business will look like once restaurants are allowed to reopen.

"Will people want to be so close together? Our tables aren't far apart. Will people feel comfortable in that same area? I don't even know if I'm going to feel comfortable in that scenario."

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