'Why not now?' say Sask. restaurant owners defying odds by opening during pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for restaurants around the world, and Saskatchewan has been no exception.

Owners of Filosophi, Meld say support for local businesses has helped launch their establishments

Staff at Saskatoon restaurant Filosophi are still required to wear masks despite the province not requiring it. (Submitted by Bill Barlas)

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for restaurants around the world, and Saskatchewan has been no exception.

But a few restaurateurs have defied the odds and opened up new establishments in the midst of the pandemic.

Bill Barlas is the owner of Filosophi, a West Coast-inspired restaurant located near the University of Saskatchewan campus in Saskatoon. The restaurant opened its doors at the end of December.

Barlas said he started making plans to open the restaurant about six months ago. While he knew the pandemic would affect his business operations, he did not want to sit and wait.

"Why not now?" he asked. "That's my question — why not now? The restaurant business is tough all along, not just now with the pandemic."

Business partners Sergio Reyna and Tim Schultz, who opened Meld Neighbourhood Eatery in Regina in September, felt a similar urgency to get their business off the ground. 

"Tim called me and said, 'Sergio, we've got to do something with this kitchen, it's under-utilized,'" said Reyna, Meld's culinary partner.

"And I said, 'Well, you realize there's a pandemic, right?' And he said, 'Yes, but I think this is a great opportunity to offer local food.' And I thought, you know what, why not?"

Sergio Renya says Meld's diverse menu has attracted a loyal customer base to the restaurant, even during the pandemic. (Submitted by Sergio Reyna)

Since then, Reyna says Meld has gained popularity in the city, wooing new customers with its fusion of Prairie staples with Mexican, Vietnamese and other international flavours. 

"It has been a good three months so far," he said. "I mean, no restaurant business is booming right now. But we just want to keep the few people that we have here employed, and then we just want to keep everything running. And it's been good."

'We did our homework'

Barlas has worked in the restaurant industry for over 30 years. He said, in some ways, knowing all along that Filosophi would open during the pandemic has been an advantage — he knew what to expect, and could plan for it in advance.

"I think everything worked out perfectly," he said. "I thought it would be a bigger challenge, but because we did our homework and took precautions to open up properly, we're doing great."

A display case of desserts at Filosophi. The restaurant, located near the University of Saskatchewan campus, opened at the end of December. (Submitted by Bill Barlas)

That's not to say there haven't been some stumbling blocks and COVID-specific challenges. In fact, the restaurant opening was delayed due to safety concerns as COVID case numbers rose in Saskatoon. And the pandemic affected other aspects of the operation, too.

"We had challenges with everything from construction to suppliers due to COVID," Barlas said. "Everything was affected by it. Suppliers were taking way longer than we expected. But it worked out."

Reyna is also clear about the challenges Meld has faced — and will continue to face in the months ahead.

"It has been really, really hard," he said.

"There have been a few days where I've felt like, I don't know if this was a good idea. But then the day after, I'll have a really, really good day, and it just keeps you going."

'Support local' enthusiasm helped launch

But Barlas says he has benefited from the enthusiasm for supporting local businesses that has characterized much of this year. 

"People in Saskatoon, they want to check this out," he said. "And as long as people support local businesses, I think we'll do OK. We'll survive and get stronger every day."

Sergio Reyna, culinary partner for Meld Neighbourhood Eatery in Regina, stands in the kitchen at Meld. (Submitted by Sergio Reyna)

Reyna has found the Regina community to be "especially supportive" during the pandemic.

In fact, while he — like so many in the hospitality industry — is eagerly waiting for it to be safe for diners to enjoy a meal out in a full, bustling restaurant, he credits this year's unusually high levels of support for local businesses for much of Meld's success.

"Once the pandemic is over, I have no idea what it's going to be like," he said.

"We have plans, but we've decided not to stress ourselves out thinking about what it's going to be like once this is over. I think it's going to get better, but on the other hand, people's motivation to support local businesses might wear off."

CBC Saskatchewan wants to hear how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted you. Share your story with our online questionnaire.