'It's game changing': Restaurants in Ontario begin to reopen dining rooms

Hours before his restaurants reopened for the first time in four months, Stephen Beckta said he is feeling excited – nervous, but excited.

On Friday, restaurants across most regions in Ontario will be able to open their indoor spaces to a maximum of 50 customers as the province enters Stage 3 of its reopening plan. It’s a moment that Beckta, who operates Play Food & Wine, Beckta Dining and Wine, and Gezellig in Ottawa, has been eagerly anticipating.

“Opening inside, it’s game-changing for us. We’re excited,” Beckta said in an interview with Yahoo Finance Canada.

Here’s what dining in one of Beckta’s three restaurants will look like for the near future.

Beckta has appointed “a sanitation manager” at each restaurant to oversee the cleaning and disinfecting process. An attendant will be stationed the washroom, cleaning after each guest. One team will of employees will be tasked with serving food, and another with clearing plates, so dirty and clean dishes are not being handled by the same employees. And, of course, employees will be wearing masks and tables spaced out to adhere to social distancing rules.

“We’re excited,” Beckta said.

“It’s definitely going to be a new experience, for us and for customers.”

Beckta’s restaurants boast capacities of between 100 and 160, but he said leaving the doors closed was not an option. Reopening is a costly process for restaurants, which may leave some owners debating whether it is the best decision under limited capacity rules. According to James Rilett, vice president of central Canada at industry lobby group Restaurants Canada, it costs an average of $36,000 for food service businesses to reopen.

“That’s money they have to find after being closed for four months and paying rent for a place you can’t use and other additional costs,” Rilett said.

But even with dine-in spaces reopened, most restaurants still expect to struggle. A recent survey conducted by Restaurants Canada found that 56 per cent of restauranteurs expect it will take at least a year to return to profitability.

“The problem is most still won’t make any money being reopened,” Rilett said.

“People right now are making the determination: will I lose more money staying closed or being open? It’s a matter of how much are you willing to lose, as opposed to how much are you willing to make.”

Andrew Oliver, the chief executive of Oliver and Bonacini Restaurants, said his restaurants will reopen as soon as the province allows, thanks in part to the federal government’s wage subsidy program that has helped offset costs. The company has also received help from its landlords through the government’s Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA).

“The rent thing is a big problem still and a deciding factor for many, given it costs tens of thousands of dollars to reopen,” Oliver said.

“As a larger group, we’re very fortunate our landlords have stepped up to the plate in a huge way... So we have small patios and we’ve opened them just because it’s better than nothing. Everyone right now just needs cash coming in to try to make the math add up.”

Oliver hopes the government will extend and tweak the CECRA program as the economy reopens, reducing the limit that requires revenues be down 70 per cent to qualify.

In the meantime, the company is focused on safety protocols and ensuring the reopening is as smooth and safe as possible.

“The worst thing that could happen to our industry right now is if we open up too quickly, or if things are not done in a safe manner and we are forced to shut down again,” Oliver said.

“That will wreak havoc on the industry, given how expensive it is to close, to throw out all the stuff you can’t keep, and then reopen again.”

For all restaurants, Rilett said, “it’s going to be a tough road ahead.”

“But that being said, restaurant owners are happy to have at least some sort of light at the end of the tunnel.”

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