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How restaurants are innovating through COVID-19

Young Hae Lee and Suk Joong Kim, the owners of Sariwon Korean BBQ in northern Toronto, have been forced to drastically change their business to adapt to COVID-19.

Like many restaurants facing a total decline in revenues thanks to COVID-19, Young Hae Lee and Suk Joong Kim have been forced to drastically change their business.

Sariwon Korean BBQ, located in north Toronto, relies on in-house dining for 90 per cent of its revenues. The COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent shutdowns have brought business to a standstill.

“When this happened and everything shut down it was a huge problem,” Ha Young Kim, the couple’s daughter, said in an interview.

“My parents were even thinking about bankruptcy. Expenses are high and there was no revenue coming in.”

That’s when Kim, a dentist temporarily unable to work, and her fiancé Richard Yu, a web consultant, came up with an idea. With slots for online grocery delivery becoming increasingly difficult to find in the city without a two-week wait, they decided to shift the business from restaurant to grocery delivery service.

As governments continue to enforce social distancing measures, food service businesses across the country are innovating and adapting their operations to ensure their survival through the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re managing and hopefully we can continue to manage us through this crisis,” Yu said.

“At this point, the goal is just to avoid bankruptcy.”

They are not alone in striving for that goal. Many industry groups have been calling on the federal government to provide aid, particularly when it comes to rent and mortgage payments.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that the government is working on a program to help businesses and commercial landlords cover rents for at least three months, but further details have yet to be disclosed.

Kim said it’s still too early to tell if the government’s new policy will help.

“We'll be reaching out to our landlord once things are more clear,” she said.

The essential services food pack being offered by Sariwon Korean BBQ.

For Dennis Jeffrey, the chef and owner of Calgary-based Fork and Farm Catering, business has disappeared since the COVID-19 outbreak hit. Fork and Farm typically caters corporate events, weddings and galas, all of which have been cancelled in recent weeks.

“We went from a completely booked calendar to losing 100 per cent of our bookings – about $3 million worth of sales – over three days,” Jeffrey said.

With a large kitchen that is typically used to preparing foods for hundreds, Jeffrey decided to pivot from catering to making meal kits. They are also donating meal kits to healthcare workers.

Still, while the shift has provided a slight financial cushion, Jeffrey has had to lay off most of his 16 employees.

“Calgary has been really receptive, and it’s nothing compared to what we were doing before, but at least we can keep ourselves busy,” Jeffrey said.

“It’s paying the rent for now. That’s our only objective – pay the rent so we don’t drown.”

‘We don’t want more debt’

Trudeau has pointed to other emergency relief measures that he says will help businesses through this crisis, including the government’s emergency wage subsidy. There is also the Canada Emergency Business Account, a $40,000 loan that is guaranteed by the government to qualifying business, some of which is forgivable to cover rent and other fixed costs.

While Jeffrey said the wage subsidy will help, he’s reluctant to apply for the loan.

“We don’t want more loans, we don’t want more debt,” he said.

“The idea of us having to take on more loans after we’ve been told to essentially cease operations is, I don’t think, the way to go.”

Other government policies that have served as a lifeline for some restaurants. For Archive, a small wine bar in Toronto that usually seats 28-people, takeout was not a realistic option, says owner Joshua Corea. Their small kitchen has enough room for one person to cook – something that makes large scale takeout difficult.

When Premier Doug Ford’s government began allowing restaurants to sell alcohol with food, the takeout equation changed for Archive. The restaurant is now selling wine alongside a small food menu.

“We are cautiously optimistic that this will pay our rent and get us through this,” Corea said.

Still, for the restaurants that do survive, there are still questions about what the “new normal” looks like once non-essential services are allowed to re-open and government restrictions are loosened.

“When we come back, are people going to start going out or will they stay home? Will we have to lower our capacity so we can keep more distance between people?” Corea said.

“The uncertainty is the hardest part. You don’t know what things are going to look like in a week, a month or a few months from now.”

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