In dark hour for hospitality industry, some are opening new restaurants anyways

toronto restaurant
Eat Nabati opened in June 2020, in Kensington Market. The shop’s owner remains hopeful about the future — despite the gloomy outlook for the restaurant industry.  Michelle McCann/Toronto Observer

The walls are painted with graffiti-style art on one side. The restaurant’s name, Eat Nabati, glows in neon amid a wall of artificial grass dotted with flowers, on the other. The food prepared for takeout is just as vibrant, with bright purple pickled turnips and crispy brown falafel balls wrapped in fluffy pitas. But since October, the restaurant’s tables remain empty, due to restrictions on indoor dining.

Israa Ali, who co-owns the new vegan shawarma shop in Toronto’s Kensington Market with two partners, decided to forge ahead with their plans to open, despite the risks.

“The pandemic wasn’t going to go away anytime soon,” Ali said in an interview with the Toronto Observer. “So, we just said, ‘Let’s just keep rolling and see what happens.’”

The shop opened in June. A couple of months later, a larger space became available a few doors down the street. Ali decided to move there when it looked like indoor dining would be allowed for the winter. Then, indoor dining was shut down again.

Israa Ali, of Eat Nabati (Courtesy Instagram).

The constantly changing rules, she said, have made it hard to make the best decisions for her business to succeed.

“There are these grey areas that can make or break a business,” Ali said.

Sales down 80 per cent

Dire predictions on the odds of restaurants surviving the winter continue to dominate the news as the pandemic drags on. Restaurants Canada estimates that since the start of the pandemic, 33,000 jobs in Toronto have been lost and full-service restaurants are experiencing as much as 80 per cent of sales losses due to the shutdown of indoor dining.

And yet, despite the economic uncertainty and bad news, there are still restaurants popping up around the city.

Jim Shelton, along with his business partner, started working on their new restaurant, Century Park Tavern, back in November 2019. When the first wave of COVID-19 took hold, he said, they were about 70 per cent finished construction and he felt like there was no turning back at that point.

The pandemic caused delays since most of their subcontractors weren’t working during the first lockdown. They also had problems securing permits, including their liquor licence. After resolving these issues, they were ready to open in October 2020, four months later than originally expected.


Century Park Tavern is located in Davenport Village in a former General Electric building. The restaurant has a small patio, but was built with a focus on indoor dining.

Michelle Mccaan/Toronto Observer

However, bad timing thwarted their plans again.

“The exact day we got our license was the same day that they announced no indoor dining,” Shelton said.

The tavern was built from scratch with their ideal restaurant in mind, in a large, red brick heritage building that once housed General Electric in Davenport Village. The interior is elegant yet cozy with light brown brick walls, wood furnishings and black fixtures throughout. The restaurant’s now serving a limited takeout menu of gourmet takes on classic pub fare such as confit duck poutine, dill pickle fries and chicken wings.

“Can’t wait to have somebody in it one day,” Shelton said. “But it’s definitely a bit depressing being in here seeing like the beautiful room at night, when nobody’s ever sat at a single one of our tables.”

The worst part, Shelton said, is they’ve laid off the 15 or so staff they’d hired. The people hired were mostly laid off staff from their other restaurant, Love Chix. The popular fried chicken spot is located in the Junction and has been open for takeout throughout the pandemic.

Resilient owners

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) has been closely monitoring the small business landscape amid the pandemic and has lobbied government on behalf of its members.

Ryan Mallough, the director of provincial affairs for Ontario at the CFIB, said that resiliency is crucial for people deciding to open up now.

“The more ways you are able to serve your customers, the more resilient that you are going to be during the pandemic [and] coming out of the pandemic,” Mallough said.

Shelton says that he and his partner meet every week to discuss new business ideas. They’ve opened a bottle shop in the restaurant and are planning to launch an Italian deli-style lunch program shortly.

But in a rapidly changing business environment, some restaurants trying to pivot to new revenue sources have suffered for their efforts.

“I feel for all those guys that did build those winter patios and stuff,” Shelton said. “The government’s got to do something about that, too. Those people put in so much money and then a week later, you told them they can’t use it.”

Excluded from government aid

One of the biggest concerns Mallough has been hearing from new businesses is that they are being excluded from government COVID-19 programs because they don’t have a 2019 tax return.

In particular, he’s heard from businesses that opened in March 2020 right before or during the first wave, who have been locked out of government programs. The CFIB has brought these concerns to government but officials remain focussed on helping only those businesses that existed before the pandemic started.

Shelton’s restaurant is in a unique situation; they have a 2019 CRA number and business number. But since they were in the middle of construction and not yet open, they can’t access government funding.

“The government has not helped us one bit, zero, literally zero,” Shelton said.

New businesses, Mallough said, should not be barred from receiving help, just because they are new.

“The more of these guys that survive and get through this, the better recovery is going to be, the faster recovery is going to be,” Mallough said. “We need them as much as we need the 10-year business to stay operational.”

Mallough also stressed the importance for both new and established businesses to engage with customers online through social media, rather than depend on traditional methods of advertising such as word-of-mouth.

“Not just the Facebooks or the LinkedIns. You need to be on Instagram. You need to be on Twitter,” Mallough said. “Some now are finding some success with TikTok, as well.”

Social media vs. word of mouth

Ali said that as a millennial, she’s always been comfortable with social media. But before the pandemic, she used social media for typical promotional purposes. That changed in the early days of lockdown, when she was alone in her other plant-based restaurant, Dar Nabati, in Oakville. It was gloomy and eerily quiet, she said, so she started to show a more personal side by creating TikTok videos of herself dancing.

“I remember some woman came in to order,” Ali said. “She was like, ‘I’m here for the girl that dances.’ And I’m like, ‘Hey, that’s me’!”

Shelton said his use of social media has changed since the pandemic, too. Instead of using a planned social media strategy, he engages more organically and consistently with the community, and with good results.

“You post one picture about what you’re doing for the day and then you get 10 people call about it. So, it’s absolutely changed,” Shelton said.

When asked about how the restaurant’s sales have been, Ali says that they were doing well until recently, but due to the cold and the new regulations, people are scared to go out again.

Ali said that to survive the next several months, the restaurant will be relying on takeout and delivery apps like UberEats and Ritual. Despite her optimistic outlook, she said she is worried about winter.

“I guess my expectations are levelled. Hope for the best, expect the worst,” Ali said.

Shelton said that while the public has been wonderful with their support, takeout is not enough to keep the restaurant running for long. For now, they’ve been able to use the profits from Love Chix, which has always been a big takeout spot, to help finance their new place.

“I’m pretty confident we’ll be all right. But it’s going to be a tight winter,” Shelton said.

There are some in the restaurant industry that fear the dining scene will be permanently altered. Shelton understands these fears, but he believes that the pull of a good meal and a nice bottle of wine will eventually lure people to return.

“When the time comes, people are going to want to go out and see people again. Like, I can’t wait to go for dinner, I’m dying to go out to dinner,” Shelton said.

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Posted: Jan 7 2021 11:42 am
Filed under: News