For Brooke Walsh, co-owner of nightclub École Privée and forthcoming Old Montreal Italian restaurant 212, the province-wide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus has been, in some ways, a blessing in disguise.
It’s given him time to stop, rest, and spend time with his wife and newborn. For busy entrepreneurs, this time and space is a novelty, Walsh says.
But the list of pros stops there.
The cons, however, are plenty. The Quebec-wide shut-down of restaurant dining room from March 23 destroyed any buzz he’d built up for 212’s opening. It put a complete pause on the construction projects his team was wrapping up; and it’s put him in a challenging position financially, as the restaurant continues to pay workers, despite having no money coming in.
This laundry list of negatives is an all-too familiar story for any restaurant currently forced to close to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. But it rings particularly true for those in the middle of an opening, when cash is tight and timing is everything.
“It’s quite tough and scary,” Walsh says. “We did have a little bit of momentum going in…we essentially lost all of our momentum, so we’ve gotta start all over again.”
Precisely when his team will be able to restart the projects they had to abruptly drop remains a huge question mark, of course. In the meantime, Walsh says he’s watching the news “like a hawk” and plans to take “full advantage” of any government benefits available for small business owners, including the newly-announced federal wage subsidy, which will cover up to 75 percent of worker’s wages for restaurants like 212.
Walsh’s landlord has allowed for a “pay what you can” approach to rent, which will make surviving sans income for an indefinite period much easier. Walsh knows he’s one of the lucky ones: Most small businesses across the country have not been given this luxury, despite widespread calls for nationwide rent freezes.
“It’s unjust that individuals and small businesses are still required to pay rent while landlords have the ability to defer mortgage payments,” Walsh says.
“The government needs to step in and put a freeze on all rent payments until this crisis is over. It maintains the ‘rich get richer’ stigma in our society while the poor and middle class suffer.”
Indeed, forced rent payments may become the straw that breaks the camel’s back for many Montreal restaurants. Nic Urli, a co-owner of Flyjin and Hà, predicts a large chunk of businesses “are not going to make it” through the pandemic lockdown.
Urli has two venues that were slated to open this spring — St-Henri Vietnamese restaurant Dinh Dinh and downtown wine bar Nomi. Instead of finishing up construction and furnishing both spots, his team is left with little more to do than “think.”
“That’s one thing that we’re doing every day: thinking. We have time to think now,” Urli says.
“Now everything is stuck, basically. We can’t do nothing,” he adds. He and his staff have tried to stay occupied brainstorming ways to jump back into gear quickly once the lockdown period comes to an end. Urli is also working hard to keep a close eye on his team, much of which had been hired right before all business shut down.
“We need to kind of keep the team together,” he says. “Keeping the link alive between us and the team to make sure that everybody feels included and that ... when it’s time to come back, we’re all together in it.
And for Erin Mahoney, chef at forthcoming Little Italy Persian restaurant Joon, the forced closure has given her time to focus on non-construction related tasks, like menu development and marketing. She considers it lucky that Joon was still relatively far from being ready to open when the lockdown went into place — she can still occupy herself with business development from the comfort of her own home.
“There’s still a lot of stuff to be done so there is no stopping,” Mahoney says.
“The construction stopped, but the actual planning of a restaurant, there’s a lot that goes on that has nothing to do with the construction. So we’re still going forward with that.”
Regardless, she says working toward an opening in the middle of a global pandemic is, to say the least, a nightmare.
“Opening up a restaurant on any day is a scary endeavor,” Mahoney says.
“Trying to make sure that everything goes forward as much as it can, and making sure that you’re completely ready for when things start up again, it’s kind of important.”