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Montreal Restaurateurs Respond to COVID-19 With a Sense of Responsibility, Solidarity

“We didn’t want to make things worse”, says the owner of Beba, one of several restaurants that has decided to voluntarily shut down

Vin Mon Lapin/Facebook

“Life is full of surprises” read the announcement from Vin Mon Lapin on Sunday morning. “Who would have thought that today we would announce such an incredibly difficult decision: Mon Lapin will close its doors until further notice.”

They’re not the only ones: local restaurants and bars are taking the decision to close temporarily, including Boxermans, Joe Beef and their affiliated restaurants Vin Papillon, Vinette, and Liverpool House, Marconi, Ratafia, Beba, and Nora Gray. Others are open for take-out only (Diplomate, Cichetti, Boucherie Provisions, McKiernan, Elena, Pumpui), with the situation remaining fluid at the time of publication.

Owners’ decisions to close down their small businesses have mostly been in the name of community health — until the weekend, guidance from provincial authorities was limited, beyond new rules limiting social gatherings to 250 people or less.

But on on Sunday, after several days with no clear restaurant-specific instructions from the Quebec government, Premier Francois Legault ordered all bars to close, and mandated that restaurants operate at 50 percent of their regular capacity, with Legault suggesting that restaurants put more space in between tables as a form of social distancing.

But despite closures and generally tough times for business, Montreal’s close-knit restaurant community is staying true to its already-collaborative spirit. Before the major changes over the weekend, a flurry of conversations took place between small restaurant owners, most of who have worked together for years — from the Vin Mon Lapin folks to their former employers at Joe Beef, through to Arthurs, September Surf, Beba, and other small-businesses, restaurateurs across the city began exchanging notes, weighing their options, talking to health professionals and their own staff before taking the challenging (and clearly heart-breaking) decision to shut down operations or scale back.

“I feel like the whole country had an ‘Oh! Shit!’ moment on Thursday,” said Ari Schor, chef and co-owner of Verdun’s Beba. “Thirty-seven million people found out together.” Schor and his co-owner brother Pablo felt the responsible thing to do was to scale down their operations, close their dining room and pivot to take-out for the time being, before opting to also cancel plans to offer take-out, stating that they didn’t want to put their staff at any extra risk whatsoever.

“We’re in the people business,” Schor said. “The real catalyst for me was talking to a close friend who is in the medical community. When I understood what could happen and the role we could be playing by hosting lots of people in a small space, we realized the effect could be exponential. We didn’t want to make things worse.”

All the restaurants Eater spoke to referred to an already strong awareness of best hygiene practices: wiping down counters, tables, banquettes, and chairs at the beginning and end of service, hand washing for all staff, and multiple cleanings of tables, counters, door handles, and bathrooms during a shift. These practices have been intensified over the past days: we observed an intense cleaning before the lunch shift Saturday at Pizzeria Gema in Little Italy, which has since closed its dining room, but is still offering take-out.

One block south of Gema, Thai restaurant Épicerie Pumpui decided on Sunday to limit its business exclusively to take-out. “We’d already taken the condiment caddies and utensils off the tables, and kept sanitizing and cleaning, as we always have,” said co-owner Jesse Mussumi.

“Now, it’s a community movement — we’re trying to offer some basic services where possible, and limit contact, hopefully helping everyone have a good summer. Better to do it now than in a month when it’s too little, too late,” he added.

With the situation changing from day to day, restaurateurs expressed relief that the Quebec government had finally weighed in with stricter measures. “We have to be setting an example,” said Vanya Filipovic, co-owner of Vin Mon Lapin. Mon Lapin shared the news with staff on Saturday, sending them home with food and the promise of work once everything is back to (the new) normal. Like the other restaurants closing temporarily, Mon Lapin is helping its team claim employment insurance and looking at how things are progressing day by day.

The emphasis on community solidarity — and the spirit of “getting through this together” — is palpable, with chefs and owners are figuring out ways to work together for the next while. Case in point: St Zotique neighbours Pumpui and Les Vins Dame-Jeanne (run by Mon Lapin’s Filipovic) are collaborating on a special initiative: specially-selected natural wines to accompany Pumpui’s spicy Thai offerings, for pickup or delivery.

“We’re getting creative,” said Filipovic. “These are trying times, and we have a front-row seat to what’s happening in Italy, France, and China. With the benefit of that information, we have the responsibility to make informed decisions.”

Mon Lapin Bar à Vin

150 Rue Saint-Zotique E, Montréal, QC H2S 1K8

Beba

3900 Rue Éthel, Verdun, QC H4G 1S4 (514) 750-7087 Visit Website

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