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Cape Breton restaurants surviving but bracing for colder months

Tyler MacIntyre pours a cold one at Governor's Pub and Eatery in downtown Sydney. GREG MCNEIL/CAPE BRETON POST
Tyler MacIntyre pours a cold one at Governor's Pub and Eatery in downtown Sydney. GREG MCNEIL/CAPE BRETON POST

Patios, other innovations key to COVID-19 survival

SYDNEY, N.S. —

A simple appeal to the public to rethink their dining habits and schedules has made a world of difference to Ardon Mofford’s efforts to stem losses associated with COVID-19 restrictions on his restaurant. 

Making reservations had not been a habit of patrons of Governor’s Pub in downtown Sydney but diners adopted the practice this summer and that helped to offset revenue losses brought on by space restrictions in place because of the pandemic. 

“My expectations were to be down as high as 50 maybe 60 per cent in revenue because I only had 40 per cent capacity,” said Mofford. 

“Historically people aren’t keen in Cape Breton to make reservations. We would get 10 per cent of our revenue from reservations but 90 per cent of revenue came from walk-ins.” 

Chef Ardon Mofford, owner of Governors Pug and Eatery in Sydney. CAPE BRETON POST FILE
Chef Ardon Mofford, owner of Governors Pug and Eatery in Sydney. CAPE BRETON POST FILE

When he reopened in the spring after brief mass restaurant closures due to COVID-19, he appealed to people to call ahead. 

An overwhelming response saw business shift from a busy 6:30-8:30 p.m. time frame when 70 per cent of revenue was garnered to a more spread out dining experience throughout the evening. 

"People call now and don’t tell me they want to eat at five o’clock, they ask 'what time can you fit us in?' Now we are able to control our reservations a little better which gives better service, a better quality of food and we are still hitting good numbers inside and are able to space them." 

Despite success with reservations, Governor’s was still hit with revenue losses of 40 per cent in June and July, and 35 per cent in August. September numbers were still being compiled but comparable results are expected. 

Across Canada, unsettling news in the restaurant industries in Ontario and Quebec this week hinted at the possibility of further restrictions as COVID-19 cases spike. 

A Financial Post report noted that Ontario hit a record-high 700 cases on Monday, prompting the Ontario Hospital Association to call on the province to return to Phase Two of its reopening plan in hard-hit areas, which would mean closing indoor dining rooms, gyms and theatres. 

That kind of shutdown, just as patio season winds down, could bring about closures in the restaurant industry, which as of mid-August had already lost 10 per cent of the 98,000 restaurants, caterers and bars that were operating before the pandemic, according to Restaurants Canada. 

Luc Erjavec
Luc Erjavec

In Atlantic Canada, a recent Restaurants Canada survey found 45 per cent of operators are running at a loss. Another 25 per cent are breaking even, leaving only a small percentage as actually profitable. 

“I think it is safe to say, particularly, the full-service restaurants, the dine-in, sit down restaurants, without things like the wage subsidy we wouldn’t be operating,” said Luc Erjavec, Atlantic Canada vice president for Restaurants Canada. 

“We are really thrilled to have the government recognize this and announce they will extend the wage subsidy because it’s important. We are still looking for continued assistance on rent, and we’d like the idea of some dine-out programs.” 

When pandemic restrictions temporarily closed some Atlantic restaurants this spring, Erjavec said 10 per cent never reopened.  

Wage subsidies helped to keep others afloat but, without continued support, 40 per cent could close by March.  

“While we may be open and some think we are open and everything is fine, that’s actually not the case. We are nowhere near normal. Due to COVID restrictions and, in particular, reduced capacity, extra costs, and restrictions on our hours, we are not operating anywhere close to normal and really struggling to stay open.” 

In terms of dining out programs, Erjavec likes what was done in England where restaurant meals on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are subsidized by the government. 

New Brunswick’s rebate to locals for patronizing restaurants and hotels in that province was also an innovative idea he’d like to see widely adopted. 

“If we can get people to restaurants, it’s a good thing for the community, it’s a good thing for the economy. Those are some of the things we’d like to see.” 

Other suggested measures related to the success of the Atlantic Bubble, which Erjavec applauded for capping and limited the region’s COVID-19 cases. 

He hopes it will mean provincial governments can be a bit more flexible with its restrictions on restaurants.  

“Loosen them when we have no cases. If we do see a spike, zero in and focus on a hot spot and bring the restrictions back. Those are the type of discussions we are having across the region.” 

Staff of Portside Beer Garden on Sydney harbour were found preparing for their lunch crowd earlier this summer. Patios and the added seating capacity they brought, were a key strategy for many restaurants this summer. GREG MCNEIL/CAPE BRETON POST
Staff of Portside Beer Garden on Sydney harbour were found preparing for their lunch crowd earlier this summer. Patios and the added seating capacity they brought, were a key strategy for many restaurants this summer. GREG MCNEIL/CAPE BRETON POST

Continued government support, he said, emphasizes the importance of an industry that has become the fourth-largest private-sector employer in Atlantic Canada. He said restaurants employ your neighbours, support local sports teams and buy from local fishers and farmers. 

In discussions with other Cape Breton restaurant owners, Mofford said everyone is experiencing the same struggles. 

Despite losses, summer was surprisingly good at Governor’s thanks to an emphasis on reservations and the popularity of space adding patios. 

As the air grows colder, Mofford knows patio season will soon end, so he’s cautiously but optimistically looking forward to winter months and at other ideas to spur business.

A renewed emphasis and promotion of his takeout menu will be an option. He has also taken notice of a trend where people take restaurant meals home to cook themselves and has already had some success with that.

“I wish everybody prosperity in the coming winter season because it is going to be a trying time for most operators,” Mofford said.

“They said the biggest time is going to be one year to 18 months down the road is when you are starting to see the closures and the true impact of this. Hopefully, it is not as bad as they predict.” 

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