After Quebec Premier François Legault’s announcement that restaurants could reopen their dining rooms at 50 percent capacity next week, Sandra Forcier, co-owner of Little Italy dessert and wine bar Ratafia, got out her pen and paper.
“Devise a new menu,” “test dishes,” “re-test them,” and so on, she wrote, before posting the to-do list to Instagram for followers to see what really goes into one of these takeout-to-indoor-dining flips. “You can’t just turn it on and off. There’s so much work involved every time,” Forcier says. After finalizing the list, she deduced that a February 8 opening would be more realistic for her business than the January 31 date Legault had proposed.
Forcier’s Instagram story was one in a deluge from restaurants releasing a collective sigh of relief that reverberated across the platform Tuesday evening. Anyone keeping tabs on the local dining scene would have had their feeds inundated with photos of dazzling dining rooms ready to be filled, renewed calls for reservations, and a flurry of job postings — all in anticipation of the industry’s third pandemic bounce-back.
While Forcier says she’s glad to be reopening for her own livelihood and that of staff, she also expresses frustration at a government that, after nearly two years, she believes still hasn’t grasped the magnitude of these reversals for small, seasonally driven restaurants like her own. “It’s just not the same from one restaurant to another one. For a chain or a restaurant that’s had the same menu for ages, it’s probably much easier.”
On Tuesday, Legault said he didn’t want to “play yo-yo with restaurants.” But for that, business owners say they need clearer COVID-19 benchmarks, so that they can anticipate changes in their operations — the next one, many hope, being an eventual return to full capacity.
“We can’t live from press conference to press conference anymore. It leaves us in the dark, and in despair,” Bistro La Franquette’s co-owner Renée Deschenes tells Eater.
Her Westmount restaurant has been closed since mid-December, before the government mandate to close restaurants went into effect, due to a COVID-19 exposure among staff. Once the restaurant was ready to reopen, it couldn’t, and takeout was untenable for the young business, Deschenes says. “It just doesn’t make sense financially for most restaurants, especially if they’re not eligible for subsidies.”
Deschenes says La Franquette doesn’t qualify for financial aid because it opened during the pandemic. Ratafia, which opened in July 2019, has been able to collect a few loans and subsidies, including a sizeable amount from Quebec’s PAUPME program, but hasn’t received anything during the latest wave.
Being able to reopen at half capacity is “better than nothing,” Forcier says, admitting that Ratafia is better positioned than many given its size; even with the cap, it can seat 40. Deschenes agrees that the capacity limitation “isn’t ideal,” but understands the safety concerns. What she has trouble following is the mandated 11 p.m. end to service: “What difference does it make what time we close if we’re already operating at half capacity?”
Lauren Nathan, a barista and server who worked at Mile End’s Pastel Rita ahead of the shutdown, agrees government measures can be difficult to reconcile — the latest example being the decision to reopen restaurants and venues, but not bars. “I think the only way this government has been consistent throughout this whole thing is in its inconsistency,” she says.
“Glad,” “relieved,” and “elated” are adjectives Nathan uses to describe her feelings after Tuesday’s announcement. She’d be at ease returning to restaurant work given ongoing mask and vaccine passport mandates, though realizes that not everyone may feel the same.
Another restaurant worker, who spoke to Eater on the condition of anonymity last week, before the province announced a firm reopening date, said they had mixed feelings about an imminent return to the Plateau kitchen where they previously worked. On one hand, they’re eager to go back and tired of having COVID on the mind, but on the other are worried about getting sick, being disrespected by clients, and having concerns sidelined by owners focused on recuperating financially. “If I’m going to be completely honest, I feel very conflicted,” they said.
Frank Climenhage, a cook at Dépanneur Le Pick Up, says Tuesday’s news felt very sudden, but that he understands the pressure to reopen in the absence of adequate support for restaurants and workers. Le Pick Up is closed for the winter months, and Climenhage is currently collecting the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit (CWLB), a federal program that grants workers a meagre $300 (before taxes) a week — an amount he says just manages to cover basic expenses (largely thanks to his lease-transferred apartment).
Thinking back to his time on CERB, which accorded $500 per week in the earlier waves of the pandemic, Climenhage says it now seems too good to be true. “It allowed me to not feel so desperate when looking to find a job and to find kitchen work that actually pays a more livable wage.”
On top of improved working conditions, Climenhage says at Le Pick Up, he knows that whenever owners do consider reopening, as a cook he will be part of the conversation. “No one should have to go back to work if they don’t feel comfortable with it,” he says, but adds, that it’s also “no longer sustainable or even possible for some workers to opt out and stay home.”
Nathan, from Pastel Rita, echoes Climenhage, saying that the latest shutdown may differ from the last for workers who don’t have the same financial security they did at the start of the pandemic. She anticipates the return of indoor dining to slowly boost morale for industry members, diners, and the city at large. “There’s a huge love affair between Montrealers and their favourite neighbourhood restaurants,” Nathan says. Money is too tight for her to patronize them just yet, but she says, “Once it isn’t, I will — and I will probably order more than I should.”