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For P.E.I. bars, pubs and restaurants, Monday will mark the end of two long months of being closed for dining and mainly relying on take-out and delivery orders as a revenue source.
And, although the opportunity to reopen is welcomed, it also comes with a lot of uncertainty about how the rest of the season will unfold.
"Basically, we're just going to try to offer the best food, the best value and the best service we can. And, hope for the best. I wish I could tell you what's going to happen down the road, but no one really can," said Jeff Sinnott, co-owner (along with Chad MacDonald) of the Red Island Hospitality Group Inc.
"It's going to get better. It won't be what it used to be, but it's going to get better."
The company owns five Charlottetown and Stratford establishments. Opening on June 1 are Hunter's Ale House, The Factory Downtown, John Brown Richmond Street Grille and the newest addition – Hunter's at the Fox (at Fox Meadow Golf Course in Stratford). The Charlottetown Beer Garden and Seafood Patio is expected to open on June 12.
Sinnott has already been getting positive feedback about the new Hunter's Stratford location, which has been open for a couple of weeks for takeout orders.
"(Hunter's at the Fox) is doing great. People at the golf course, and Stratford in general, have been loving us, I think. We'll be happy to have the inside open and the patio open to people," he said.
Next week's reopenings are part of the third phase of the province's Renew P.E.I. Together plan.
Sinnott will be operating at a lower capacity this summer. Under provincial regulations and in keeping with social distancing, he is allowed to have up to 50 customers inside the bars at one time for dining. Hunter's in Charlottetown also has a second floor with washrooms that is available for customers.
At Hunter's, Sinnott has arrows on the floor directing customers in a safe manner. As well, he has installed plexiglass between booth seating, and tables are spaced at least six feet apart.
Servers are not required by the province to wear safety masks. Instead, at Hunter's, they can take orders from a safe distance, and a food runner wearing a mask will deliver customers their orders. Tables will be cleaned once customers leave, and then sprayed with a solution designed to kill COVID-19. That solution will sit for at least five minutes, and then the table will then be wiped down again before a customer can sit at a table. Bar seating has also been removed.
The hours of operation will remain the same, but it won't have that nightclub feel as it has in the past in the late hours. "(Hunter's) will operate as a restaurant-style the whole time we're open. So, the tables stay in place and people sit at the tables. It's not so much a bar atmosphere. It's more of a restaurant atmosphere," he said.
"It was shaping up to be such a great year. We had a very busy January. Christmas season was great. February was rolling along. We're gearing up for all these events ... St. Patrick's Day. And then everything just fell apart. It was tough."
- Jeff Sinnott
Richards Fresh Seafood in Covehead is planning to open on Friday, June 5. But this year, owner and chef Ryan Doucet is also busy getting a new Richards up and running in Victoria. Construction began in October, and Doucet hopes to open mid-June.
The Victoria restaurant has indoor seating and a large patio deck with seating for 45-50 people, said Doucet. Along with the restaurant, there is going to be a market with seafood, fruit and vegetables for sale. Similar to Covehead, the Victoria restaurant will have a pager to let customers know when their order is ready.
Doucet said the Victoria restaurant will have some core menu items similar to Covehead, but the new restaurant will also try a few new items, such as different types of fish tacos, steamed mussels and clams and a seafood chowder.
In order to accommodate social distancing at Covehead, Doucet said some tables have been removed from the inside eating area. But Doucet is also hoping to have outside seating around the wharf.
"A lot of people, they come out and it's more of an experience. They like to not just grab something to go. They like to be able to sit and eat out in Covehead," he said.
Doucet was able to bring back most of his staff from last year. Overall, he expects to hire about 15 people at each spot. As COVID-19 became a reality on P.E.I. in mid-March, Doucet reached out to former staff to make sure they were OK with coming back and working at the restaurants.
Moving forward, Doucet also doesn't know what to expect this season, especially if the province remains closed to visitors and tourists.
"I know we're going to be busy, but I don't know what that's going to look like. I have a feeling our weekends will be busier than our weekdays, while generally, we would be busy every day regardless, if the weather was nice," he said.
When bars and restaurants were ordered closed by the province in March, Sinnott said he had to lay off 100 of about 110 staff members. Like other bars and restaurants, with dining rooms closed to the public, business has been limited to takeout, pick-up and delivery orders. Sinnott was able to bring back a few staff, raising the total to around 12-15, to help out with those orders.
Now, with restaurants being able to reopen dining and patio services, he's hiring about 100 staff for the season, which is about 100 fewer than the middle of last summer.
"We'll probably have to increase (staff) once we see how it goes, but that's what we're starting with," he said.
Sinnott said laying off staff was the toughest part of the past couple of months. He has staff who have been with the business for more than a decade. The second toughest part was not being able to take everyone back at the same time.
"Everyone wanted to come back," he said. "It's just not possible to bring everybody back when you're not at full capacity," he said.
Even with in-person dining coming back, Sinnott said takeouts and deliveries will still be a part of the business moving forward, especially with apps designed to foster those services.
Although COVID-19 was widely known by mid-March, for many people on P.E.I. and in the business community, its arrival still seemed to catch everyone off guard.
At that time, Sinnott was getting ready and hiring staff for P.E.I.'s annual Burger Love competition, which was scheduled to begin on April 1. Then, the competition was postponed and the province announced that dining rooms were being closed to the public.
"It was shaping up to be such a great year. We had a very busy January. Christmas season was great. February was rolling along. We're gearing up for all these events ... St. Patrick's Day," Sinnott said. "And then everything just fell apart. It was tough."