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Operate with reduced capacity, strive to fill seats in uncertain times
The summer season is usually a big deal at Salty's Restaurant, located along the waterfront of downtown Halifax.
Its patio, bar and grill and upstairs dining room can hold over 400 guests. But in a consumer climate where customers are wary of dining in and tourists and office workers are nowhere to be found — all due to the COVID-19 pandemic — expectations this summer are considerably lower. About 40 people work at Salty's now, roughly half of what's normal for summer.
"There's no business clientele, which is a big part of our business, and no tourists," said Patti Robertson, Salty's general manager for the last 20 years. "We tend to get a lot of people entertaining clients because of our location. We have a great view of the harbour. We tend to get groups of people that work together or are here for conferences," she said.
"At lunchtime, we used to get fairly regular people from the office towers next door. That's all kind of gone right now."
Starting Friday, July 3, a few more tables may fill up as Nova Scotia joins New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island to create an Atlantic bubble, permitting travel between all four provinces without needing to self-isolate.
Robertson is of two minds when it comes to contemplating the Atlantic bubble's impact on restaurant foot traffic.
"I feel like it will help, for sure," Robertson said. "I'm thinking that people are going to go for our more casual area. The outdoor thing seems to be what people really want ... If it's sunny and warm, we're doing quite well on our patio — as well as we can with the distancing.
"It's really going to depend on weather and if people are comfortable coming here and staying in hotels, or maybe they're visiting family. I don't foresee a huge influx of people to be honest, but I hope I'm wrong. But we certainly welcome them."
Since reopening June 5, Salty's seats outside customers at every second table outside. There's been little interest in the upstairs dining room, which only opens in the evening Thursday through Sunday.
The Nova Scotia government last week announced restaurants and licensed liquor establishments can operate at 100 per cent capacity, though it also requires appropriate distancing between tables. These days, tables occupied at Salty's typically have two-to-four customers.
"There's not a lot of big groups," Robertson said.
Roberstson's observations line up with recent findings of a survey Angus Reid conducted on behalf of Dalhousie University's Agri-Food Analytics Lab. It found just over half (52 per cent) of respondents across Canada plan to avoid dining in to protect their health. Only 18 per cent said they would go back to restaurants as soon as possible, while approximately one-third of respondents indicated they're waiting for a second wave of the virus to pass.
Matthew Swift is the chef at Terre Restaurant in downtown St. John's. Like Salty's, it offers a stunning view of the harbour. Only a year removed from its grand opening at Alt Hotel St. John's on Water Street, Terre has faced some significant challenges entirely out of its control, including a weeklong closure in January due to the historic snowstorm and then COVID-19. He's been cautiously optimistic about the future since Terre reopened as a dine-in restaurant June 13 (it offered takeout prior to the reopening).
"People have been very supportive and have wanted to come out," he said. "Generally, what I do in my spare time is also what I do for my profession, so I really missed having places to go eat and have a drink. I think it's really good for a lot of people to be able to go out and have some sort of social space again."
Like Salty's, Terre is operating at a lower capacity — approximately half in this case. Swift believes they can fill those seats on a regular basis and perhaps even more if restrictions are altered to accommodate additional seats. He was about to advertise for summer staff just before the pandemic hit and has put those plans on hold knowing the situation at hand.
The City of St. John's is trying out something different to encourage people to shop downtown by creating a pedestrian mall, spanning four blocks of Water Street from Bishop’s Cove to Job’s Cove. Alt Hotel is at the corner of Job's Cove and Water Street, across the road from where the mall ends. It will remain in place from July 3 to Sept. 7.
Swift loves the ideas of the mall and hopes it serves its purpose.
"I think Water Street in general could use a lot of support right now, because there are a lot of closed shop fronts there and there's a lot of people that have definitely had a rough go of it going into a year like this," he said.
"For us, we're just past the end of (the mall), which I think actually works OK, because where we are and having a little bit of sidewalk space around us, we can kind of fit into that. Also, people can still drive and park and go to the pedestrian mall, so we can benefit both ways I'm hoping. I would like to see it extended longer ... I think it's nice to have more of a community thing."
Terre is taking a revenue hit within the hotel itself, as the restaurant typically caters business banquets held there. Like Salty's, Swift said it also misses the office workers now working from home. Takeout was not a part of the original business model for the restaurant, but Swift intends to keep that service going once a new system for managing orders is finalized.
"That's definitely something we had really not planned on doing much of, and it has been pretty successful for us," he said. "A lot of people aren't comfortable or able to go out. For us still to be able to provide something is great."
Robertson expects the trend of virtual business meetings will continue for quite some time, even if borders open to provinces beyond Atlantic Canada. She's also convinced a lot of workers will maintain a home-based office for the remainder of 2020.
"We're cautiously optimistic, since I'm trying to be very positive. But it could be a very tough winter."
To help businesses get through these challenging times, Robertson is hopeful people can make an effort to support local companies as much as possible.
“We certainly would love to see all the locals from down here enjoy our patio and enjoy our view and our food and service.”