Excitement, challenges as restaurants prepare to resume indoor dining

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Restaurants are being deep-cleaned and extra provisions ordered as indoor eating and drinking returns to Ottawa later this week for the first time in months.

But, amid hopes that Friday’s reopening of indoor dining marks the start of a return to normal, there is also anxiety.

Some restaurants say they are unable to find enough staff to handle the expansion, despite offering signing bonuses and more pay.

Still, for businesses that have been just hanging on in recent months, the move to Step 3 of Ontario’s reopening plan on Friday is something to celebrate. The opening has no capacity limits for restaurants, as long as tables are two metres apart.

“It’s great. We have been spinning our tires for 17 months,” said Mike Estabrooks, new owner of Irene’s Pub on Bank Street in the Glebe. “We are excited.”

Like many pubs and restaurants, Irene’s has been able to offer takeout and serve diners at limited patio space in recent weeks, but being able to open indoors will make a big difference, he said.

A key difference with Step 3 opening is that Irene’s can welcome back more live music. For a while, the restaurant live-streamed music, but then restrictions made that unworkable, said Estabrooks. He said he has been worried about the musicians who usually rely on Irene’s and other venues to earn money.

“I feel the musicians have really slipped through the cracks during this pandemic. It is super important for us to get back to making musicians some money and making some money ourselves.”

Estabrooks said he will be interested to see if his customers’ behaviour has changed during the pandemic. Irene’s used to remain open until 2 a.m., but during the pandemic customers on the patio have called it a night earlier.

“We are finding habits are changing,” he said.

Estabrooks said he was grateful to get a week’s notice from the province to get prepared for reopening. The provincial government has been criticized in the past for not giving businesses enough time to prepare for lockdowns or reopenings.

“We have lots of preparations to do, getting the space ready, dusting off the cobwebs and shining the tables.”

But even that extra time might not be enough for some restaurants to be ready for partial reopening of indoor dining.

Gord Gifford, general manager of the Savoy Brasserie in Westboro, said his restaurant has tried everything to hire staff — including signing bonuses, pay increases and allowing new employees to work three days so they can continue collecting federal pandemic benefits — to no avail.

Other restaurants are facing similar challenges, he said.

“We are all kind of scared because we can’t find any staff right now. There is a huge labour shortage and it is across the board,” he said. “At this point, we are looking at opening in five days and that is 100 per cent a limiting factor.”

Savoy has had outdoor dining open on its patio, but being able to open at 25 per cent indoors would double its capacity, he said. The only problem is being able to find staff to make that expansion work.

“The servers are run ragged, the kitchen is just cringing.”

Gifford said the expansion of businesses such as Amazon during the pandemic and the availability of CERB benefits are factors in that labour shortage. He thinks things will return to somewhat normal in a few months, but said restaurant staff will be paid more money — a cost that will be reflected on menus.

Meanwhile, he said restaurants in Westboro have asked the local BIA to hold a job fare to help them hire.

The Rowan on Bank Street is also trying to hire people to help with the reopening, said general manager Tori Nicholson.

The restaurant has no outdoor space and has only been doing takeout in recent months.

“We have been patiently awaiting indoor dining,” she said.

At the Hintonburg Public House on Wellington Street, owner Summer Baird said the business has been running at a loss for the past year and a half. She is hoping things finally begin to pick up.

The restaurant has added patio space out front and behind, for the first time, and is setting up barriers and arranging tables to allow for distanced seating indoors as of Friday when restaurants are allowed to open at reduced capacity.

“It has been difficult,” she said of running a restaurant and pub during the pandemic.

Asked if she has ever considered giving up, Baird responded, “Daily.” But she said she has many reasons to keep going.

“I love the restaurant and the community we have built.”

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