It’s not like running a restaurant under normal circumstances is easy.

But in the days of a pandemic, just getting to the end of the month with the lights still on is an achievement.

Craig Flinn, one of Halifax’s leading restaurateurs for 20 years, describes the impact of COVID on his business as “devastating.”

“And I don’t say that lightly. We are, on an average day, somewhere between five and 15 per cent of normal,” he said in his small office off his restaurant’s prep kitchen.

“Even in the spring, when we reopened and pivoted to takeout, it was busier than that.

“It’s a number of things. One is that every restaurant has had eight months to pivot and plan for takeout. We knew the second wave was coming, we were familiar with what COVID meant and what you needed to do to survive. There’s a lot of choice out there, so takeout and delivery numbers . . . have been spread thinner over a larger number of options.”

Before COVID, Flinn had 93 employees. Now he’s down to 50 or so at his two locations of Two Doors Down, and the most recent prohibition of in-house dining in Halifax took away the weeks of business that let restaurants survive the winter.

“Christmas parties, the month of December, is an absolutely crucial month to get through the winter,” said Flinn.

“So, we’ve now lost . . . all the Christmas parties and most of our dining gatherings of 10, 12, 14, 18 people, whether it be office lunches or gatherings of friends and family. That was the core business and the bread and butter of December and it’s all gone.”

A group of Halifax hospitality industry staff made a video thank their community and talk about why they miss their jobs.

Also gone: New Year’s Eve, the busiest night of the year, and the one that gets restaurants through January. Not this year.

“Even a good New Year’s Eve this year, doing takeout, will mean revenues of 20 per cent of normal,” Flinn said.

“Going back to June, July and August, I was more concerned about January through March of 2021 than I was about most of this year. Because we had the ability to do a patio in both locations, we had great local support, people in Nova Scotia came out and supported all restaurants very well.”

Flinn said he and his staff are grateful to live in Nova Scotia, where they’re safe and the public has bought into social distancing and mask wearing, and for the support provided by customers and government.

To a point.

“I think now that we have, and have had, help and programs to sort of muddle through, it has certainly been lifesaving for many places,” he said.

“However, I would also say that I feel that restaurants and bars have been the scapegoat in this last wave. I feel that it’s not right we are the only industry in retail or service that is not allowed to open at all right now. That’s not fair and the government should be giving us increased subsidies, perhaps $5,000 for restaurants and bars on top of the last $5,000 to get us through this second closure, because you’re keeping us closed an additional month over other businesses, and that’s not fair.”

Craig Flinn says the impact of COVID on his restaurants has been devastating. – Ryan Taplin
Craig Flinn says the impact of COVID on his restaurants has been devastating. – Ryan Taplin
Even if Halifax restaurants get the go-ahead to open in a couple of weeks, there has been talk that some will choose to remain closed during what are usually slow months. Flinn said he thinks people are going to be sick of being locked down and will want restaurants to open.

“Because we had support in restaurants right up until the closure,” he said.

“Lunch business has tanked. I’m very concerned about the future of downtown cities in this country because towers aren’t opening up as quick and lunch business is dropping. For a Barrington Street restaurant, if we don’t have lunches, that’s half our business.”

On the positive side, Flinn said restaurants that don’t survive – and that number is going to be significant – could lead to “a real surge of creativity and vibrancy in the industry in the next 18 months we’ve never seen before.”

“I would say that vibrant, creative-minded people who just want to cook good food their way, I don’t think that dream is going to die,” he said.

“There will be places that don’t reopen, so there will be empty restaurants, turn-key operations that young chefs will have the opportunity to take over, with any luck at a cheaper price.”

In St. John’s, Brenda O’Reilly’s holiday season is made even less festive by the fact she soon has to lay off even more employees and roll back hours for those that keep their jobs.

She runs O’Reilly’s Irish Newfoundland Pub, Mussels on the Corner and two locations of Yellowbelly Brewery.

Brenda O’Reilly is the chair for Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador’s board of directors. — TELEGRAM FILE PHOTO – File Photo
Brenda O’Reilly is the chair for Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador’s board of directors. — TELEGRAM FILE PHOTO – File Photo
“It’s been dramatic,” O’Reilly said of COVID’s impact on her business.

“We have a Yellowbelly in the departures lounge at the airport, so needless to say, that’s been decimated. We peaked at 15 per cent of our normal revenue during the summer; right now we’re hovering around five per cent.”

Last year, O’Reilly’s restaurants employed 300 people. This year, employment peaked at 150 and that’s going down, even taking into account hiring extra security to do contact tracing.

“The pandemic is still existing and the dark days of winter are normally our slowest season,” she said.

“The (elimination of) normal behaviour of being able to mingle and talk to people, be very social in a bar and pub atmosphere, and no dancing, has really dramatically impacted that business.”

O’Reilly employs musicians seven nights a week year-round, but now she’s hiring singles and duos instead of trios or bands. And the local population alone isn’t enough to keep her afloat.

“My businesses are steeped in tourism, so we need tourists to come back,” O’Reilly said.

“Our biggest tourism draw, besides Atlantic Canada, is Ontario and Alberta, and those two provinces really have their work cut out for them to get COVID under control.”

When recovery starts for the restaurant sector, it’s going to be “bumpy” and take a couple of years, says Luc Erjavec, Restaurant Canada’s vice-president for Atlantic Canada.

Luc Erjavec, Restaurant Canada’s vice-president for the Atlantic region, poses for a photo on Prince St. on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020.Ryan Taplin – The Chronicle Herald
Luc Erjavec, Restaurant Canada’s vice-president for the Atlantic region, poses for a photo on Prince St. on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020.Ryan Taplin – The Chronicle Herald
Even to describe restaurant owners as “hanging on” would be optimistic.

“Overall, as an industry we’re probably down about 25 per cent, compared to February and February’s not a great time of year, either,” Erjacec said.

“If you look a little closer at that number, full-service restaurants, the ones where you go sit and eat and pay after, those are down closer to 35-40 per cent, drinking spots 50-60 per cent, all compared to February. So, it’s really, really ugly.”

The figures Erjavec refers to are national numbers, and he says things are worse in Halifax.

“This latest shutdown is devastating. We thought it would be two weeks originally, and then it was three, and now it’s six,” he said.

“You’re doing zero, and still have bills. I did hear from operators in Truro or Cape Breton that, because people got scared of what’s going on in Halifax, people hunkered down a bit and sales were less. They felt that right away. On the other hand, talk to places in P.E.I., where they opened (last week), the weekend was OK. Overall, it’s absolutely terrible.

“In Halifax, being forced to close down for a long period of time over Christmas holidays, which traditionally means office parties and people shopping, it’s a devastating blow.”

Close to half of Erjavec’s membership tell him if things don’t improve in the next six months, they’re done. And of those who own more than one operation, half of those plan to shutter at least one.

“Even in a place like Halifax, where we’re going to be reopening in January, you’re going to be reopening in the toughest month of the year,” he said.

“At best, you’re at 40 to 50 per cent of capacity because of the six feet. When we’re operating at a hundred per cent, we’re making five per cent profit, so reduce your capacity by half and it’s tougher and tougher to make a go of it.”

As part of his lobbying efforts, Erjavec is frequently in touch with provincial governments and, like Flinn, he thinks government has to do more for restaurants.

“We closed because government made us close. We’re in the business of selling food and beverage, we want to be open, we want to sell. The federal government has stepped up in terms of the wage subsidy and the rental subsidy, which are big things, but I think there are many things on the provincial level that should be done to help us to become profitable and help rebuild confidence in this industry.”

View the article on Journal Pioneer here.