While many restaurants struggle to survive the pandemic, some hardy souls are opening new spots this year

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alifax chefs Stephanie Ogilvie and Brock Unger dreamt of opening a restaurant for a decade. The opportunity came along mid-pandemic.

But they don’t see that as a disadvantage. The co-owners of five-month-old Hop Scotch Dinner Club on Barrington Street say launching amid COVID-19 helps them compete with established eateries.

“The extreme circumstances we’re finding ourselves in: everyone else is in the same boat,” says Ogilvie, runner-up on the latest season of Top Chef Canada.

“It’s kept all the gears moving,” adds Unger. “We’ve had to be creative with the steps we’re taking and creative at getting people’s attention.”

Hop Scotch was a popular pop-up offering multi-course gourmet meals that became a full-fledged restaurant in mid-July when the couple took over the second-floor Barrington Street perch that was home to Chives Canadian Bistro, where Ogilvie was chef de cuisine.

It’s not the only new restaurant braving COVID.

Gordon Stewart

More than 50 new full-service restaurants have opened in HRM since the beginning of March, says Gordan Stewart, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia. The tally, not far off a typical year, is surprising. But, he says, “People who open a restaurant are highly entrepreneurial and big risk takers.”

COVID-related restaurant casualties are harder to track. “With an opening you have to file and register, so we know that number exactly,” explains Stewart. “When a restaurant closes, there’s no notification.”

Stewart estimates close to 200 have closed since March, with 80% of those likely gone for good.

Abdelmalek Saoudi and his wife Houda Ibnou had planned to open Casablanca, their Moroccan restaurant, in March after taking over their Queen Street spot and completing renovations.

They delayed the debut until late August, in part because the pandemic caused problems bringing in the chef they recruited from Morocco. “His visa was approved, but the embassy closed and there were also no flights,” says Saoudi. “He arrived in July and had to quarantine for two weeks.”

Chef Imad Fathallah

Saoudi says he and his wife looked for two years before finding an affordable spot in downtown Halifax to open the restaurant. With no Moroccan restaurants east of Montreal, the couple sees a potential niche.

Before cases flared up with a second wave of COVID, customers were coming from as far afield as New Brunswick to try the food. Now that Halifax’s restaurants are closed again for in-person dining as the pandemic continues, Chef Imad Fathallah is tinkering with the takeout menu.

“We didn’t want to do Skip the Dishes, but in the end, we had to,” says Saoudi. “Moroccan food is best if you sit down together and enjoy it. On top of that, [delivery app services] charge huge commissions.”

Like many restaurants struggling to stay alive amid the pandemic, Casablanca isn’t turning a profit.

“We don’t have a lot of staff and we’re getting a lot of help from family members,” says Saoudi, a bilingual credit specialist with CIBC and professor with Université Sainte-Anne. “We’re trying to keep our costs down. As long as we pay or rent and our expenses and our employees, that’s all that matters for now. Hopefully by next year things will get better.”

Stewart says people might be under the misapprehension that restaurants were doing fine since being permitted to reopen in June after the initial COVID shutdown in mid-March. But many have been generating sales of less than half of what they were a year ago, he adds.

Stewart says his association expects it to take five to eight years for small businesses to recover lost revenues. “Usually, when people have less money and fewer resources, they buy gas for their car or groceries, but they don’t go to a restaurant,” Stewart says.

The latest shutdown to in-person dining, ordered on Nov. 23, isn’t delivering as big a blow as seen with the abrupt lockdown in mid-March.

Since then, restaurants have gotten a chance to find revenue-generating alternatives to offset the lost business and the government has come out with rent and wage subsidies.

Brock Unger, Stephanie Ogilvie

Hop Scotch wouldn’t be afloat without that support. “None of this would be possible,” says Unger.

With the dining room closed, staff of close to a dozen dropped to four as business shifted to high-end prepared meals for home delivery, a niche they tried early on in the pandemic before opening the dining room.

The former Chives space is larger than they originally wanted, but with distancing sure to continue when dining rooms reopen, the room will make service easier. And they’re keen to welcome diners back. Since opening, around 95% of Hop Scotch’s revenue has come from dine-in customers. “We’ve lost so many Christmas party reservations,” says Unger.

Ogilvie and Unger are expanding their takeout program to include canapes and appetizers, as well as the possibility of Christmas dinners with complete fixings that just need to be popped in the oven at home.

“If we’re not able to do that because of restrictions around COVID, we are happy to do it in a container and package it up nicely to make sure customers have the best experience,” Ogilvie says. “It’s very minimal work for people with simple heating [and plating] instructions to make a nice evening of it…Or just eat it out of a container. No judgements.”

A dining scene transformed

Stewart expects a far difference landscape for the restaurant industry post-COVID.

“A pandemic is probably going to happen again, so the design of restaurants has to be much different,” he says. “They’re going to want to make sure there in a sunny location that can have a patio, maybe all year round.”

Sit-down restaurants that might not have entertained the idea of takeout in the past will add it to their menu of options, he says.

Smaller restaurants are likely to mimic large chains with the use of technology to get a better handle on the business, such as customer traffic patterns and inventory management, he says. “Big corporate takeout chains have done that for years. It’s all a numbers game for them, whether it’s french fries, a soft drink or whatever.”

In the meantime, in a bid to help out local eateries, the restaurant association is urging the province to allow dine-in spots to deliver beer, wine and cider along with meals through third parties.

“Currently, if you order alcohol from a sit-down restaurant, the person that orders it has to pick it up,” Stewart says. “We’ve made the case. Wineries and distillers can do it. I don’t think it’s any stretch to allow restaurants to do it. Deliverers can easily ask for ID.”

The few, the brave

New food service offerings opened in Halifax Regional Municipality since March through November, according to the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia:

  • 54: full-service menu  
  • 20: quick serve  
  • 2: take-out / canteen  
  • 1: grocery  
  • 2: convenience store
  • 2: public market 
  • 1: catering 

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