Thunder Bay Restaurateurs Navigating Ever-Changing Regulations

Story by Matt Prokopchuk, Photos by Aelin Foster

The general manager of a Thunder Bay restaurant says staying on top of ever-changing regulations governing the food service industry has been key to her business being able to successfully navigate the ongoing pandemic, but experts say the fall and winter months will likely be the true test of a restaurant’s ability to stay afloat.

As COVID-19 began to take hold in other parts of the world and, eventually, Canada, from late 2019 into the early part of this year, Red Lion Smokehouse general manager Caitlin Van Ballegooie says they were closely watching how things were playing out in other cities so they could best anticipate how to adapt when restrictions—which would close restaurants to dine-in customers for months—came into force here in March. Red Lion already being set up to offer food through take-out and delivery prior to COVID-19 was another major advantage in transitioning quickly to new ways of doing business, she says.

“We’ve been in the take-out game for a little while now,” she says. “It was never really our top promotion—our guests come [to] us for our atmosphere, our activities, so take-out has always been like a side option.” But that side option quickly became vital, and, after a fast reorganization to operate in the then-current climate—including rapidly offering take-out draft beer when the province began allowing it—Van Ballegooie says the next step was to bring some of the other extras for which the restaurant is known to customers virtually. That included things like quiz nights, music bingo (with proceeds from card sales going to the Regional Food Distribution Association), and even an at-home chef’s table experience, all through online means.

It’s that type of flexibility and ability to roll with the punches that will give a restaurant the best chance to survive, says James Rilett, a vice president with Restaurants Canada, a membership-based resource and lobby for the food service industry in this country. Rilett adds that eateries that were already set up for take-out and delivery and that had existing patios generally faced an easier time. Still, he says, it’s been “a tough slog” for most. Locally, Charla Robinson, president of the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce, adds that, based on what she’s heard, it’s been a stressful time for everyone. “The number one thing I’m hearing from restaurateurs is that they’ve really had to be creative and tenacious,” she says. “The world has been changing for them quite quickly and they’ve had to flip their business model, maybe not just once, but maybe two or three times in the last six months.” Uncertainty and anxiety over how the rules may change again going forward is something that’s come up in local discussions, she says.

That concern is well-founded, says Rilett. Patio season has a finite end, and once the weather cools, restaurants will lose valuable table space if current social distancing measures remain. Rilett says the colder-weather months will ultimately decide a restaurant’s fate. “I think once we see the patios close, we’re going to see a lot of people make the decision whether to close or not,” he says, adding that his organization conducted a survey of its members nation-wide over the summer, and about half of the independently owned restaurants that responded said they think they’ll have to close due to the pandemic. Further data released in August by Statistics Canada and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce found that up to 60 percent of the country’s accommodation and food service businesses could fail within three months. Compounding that, Robinson says, is that no one knows exactly how the virus will behave—and, consequently how the rules will change—making long-term planning very difficult.

Still, at Red Lion and many other local establishments, orders continue to pour in and table space can be at a premium. Van Ballegooie says she continues to keep close watch on other businesses across the province, the country, and even abroad, as well as paying attention to public health officials and regulations to help best know what to do and how to adapt. “Everybody during this time, I think, is looking at somebody else; another experience to help give guidance,” she says.