Restaurants everywhere are suffering right now, but those in Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles are facing an extra COVID-related blow: the probable loss of hordes of summer festival-goers flocking through their doors.
Three large festivals — Just for Laughs, the Montreal International Jazz Festival, and Francofolies—have announced the cancellations or postponements of their 2020, and Mayor Valérie Plante has declared that public gatherings and sporting events would be prohibited until July 2.
Now it seems likely that the whole summer season will written-off, with the province recommending the cancellation of all events through to the end of August.
For many of the bars and restaurants in the area, the presumed loss of the summer season has forced a complete change in focus. Tourist-heavy summers have typically been a time to recoup winter losses, especially around this part of town, which sees the largest crowds. That strategy is no longer on the cards, as few restaurant owners expect a return to full-time hours before fall.
“We were expecting to at least double our revenue this summer,” said David Pham, owner of three counters in Le Central, a brand new food hall right alongside Place-des-Arts.
“We have a lot of customers, but for sure with the festivals we would have had like five times the amount of people.”
Pham says while Le Central is closed, two of his three counters — Laotian snack bar Thip Thip and Chinese fried chicken joint Ho Lee Chix — are refocusing their efforts on delivery.
“We never pushed [delivery] before. Now we have no choice but to push it.”
The administration of Le Central is conscious that with summer crowds off the table for the food hall’s first year in business, its vendors are understandably anxious.
“If this had happened in September, I think it would have been a little less scary for restaurants,” said Marilou Hudon-Huot, Project Development Director for La Société de Développement Angus, the organization that runs Le Central.
According to Hudon-Huot, the government could be doing more to help independent restaurateurs, many of whom will either be stuck paying high rents or, for owners of newer restaurants like those in Le Central, still have debts associated with opening to pay off.
“They are not prepared to have liquidities for a season or two, especially after winter, when the cash flow is already pretty much in the red,” she said.
“I really hope that bars and restaurants will get the measures they need...what I’m looking at right now is a lot of loans, and it will help us in the short term, but in the long run, if those businesses don’t get help other than piling on debt, with the margins they’re making, I don’t see how we won’t lose a lot of restaurants that we like.”
She advocates for breaks in rent and municipal taxes from the top — it shouldn’t be up to the kindness of landlords to offer relief, Hudon-Huot said, in a neighbourhood where restaurants might be paying “10, 12, 14 thousand dollars a month, with taxes on top.”
Still, while Hudon-Huot is concerned for the city’s restaurants in general, she’s confident that Le Central’s restaurants will be able to weather the storm. The food hall’s business model ensures that its restaurants won’t be burdened by rents, and Hudon-Huot says that a bumper fall is still potentially on the cards.
“If we look on the bright side — or not bright, but brighter — we’ve been talking with the venues all around and everybody is booking from September to Christmas, like every day.”
Until then, she says Le Central’s 23 restaurants will focus on delivery and on eventually reopening and securing business from local office and retail workers — who already make up most of the neighbourhood’s winter dining crowd.
Huton-Huot said she’s been personally impressed with how many people have flipped their entire business model “in like three days.”
At Le Central’s Roman-style pizza joint, Morso, flipping the business model has meant offering sheet tray-sized pizzas that can feed three to four people and can be ordered a day in advance and reheated at home. Yet while co-owner and chef Mirko D’Agata has adapted quickly,
For D’Agata, the biggest concern going forward is that at large food halls like Le Central, as well as other newcomers like the Time Out Market and Le Cathcart, the return to business as usual could be even slower given the sheer size of the establishments.
“People are going to be scared to go back and stay inside with 250, 500 people in the same place, so that’s going to be a little bit harder.”
A couple of minutes up St-Laurent at neighbouring bar Pamplemousse, it’s not the cancellations themselves, but the fear of the unknown that has co-owner Tino Rizk most concerned.
Pamplemousse has been lucky so far; it’s more of a “winter bar”, anyway, said Rizk, and one that does well with the surrounding crowd of workers and locals. The owners have also been able to negotiate a rent solution with their landlord.
“What I’m worried about is reopening to a reality where people are broke, people have been laid off, [and have] developed different habits,” he said.
“People get used to being home, staying at home, drinking at home, and then you reopen everything and they’re scared of getting sick...you’re not going to be flicking a switch and then life goes back to normal.”
While Pamplemousse faces its own set of consequences from the shutdown — the food-forward bar is less than two years old, and has acquired debts that likely could have been paid off a year from now if 2020 had gone as planned — but Rizk is aware that they’re not alone.
“It’s really a time of uncertainty for everybody. We’re all kind of in the same boat together.”
That’s a sentiment that Le Central’s Hudon-Huot shares.
“I think it’s the best time to regroup and not just see each other as competitors. We’re living the same issues, same problems, same successes now. Let’s try to see if we can be better in a group than by ourselves,” she said. “It’s something nice that we’ve seen out of this. This human solidarity.”
- Quebec asks all summer festivals be cancelled through Aug. 31 [Montreal Gazette]