It’s the beginning of March 2020; you begin to hear rumours of a strange flu going around but think nothing of it. Instead, your mind is focused on a long-time vision of opening a Caribbean restaurant. Planning is going well, but things suddenly take a drastic turn and the world as you know it shuts down.
This is what Paula and Garfield Williams faced as they launched Manhattin Kitchen & Eatery in Brooklin, part of Whitby, Ont.
A pandemic and a suffering economy isn’t the ideal environment to start a business for any entrepreneur, but this determined family decided the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t going to stop them.
They proceeded to finalize their lease, begin renovations, and sure enough, Manhattin was born.
“Starting out in a pandemic is different because it’s a lot of extra work on top of being a new business,” said Paula Williams, co-owner of Manhattin.
“We try to cover everything as far as COVID safety practices. We place additional emphasis on washing hands and sanitizing everything thoroughly.”
Operating a business during pandemic conditions has been a struggle for many business owners in Canada. More than 800,000 employees were laid off in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a result — the Canadian food sector has taken the biggest hit, according to Restaurants Canada, an industry advocacy group. Small businesses in suburban communities struggled to deal with food shortages, layoffs, and maintaining customer relationships.
“One of our main struggles was food shortages and ordering specific items on our menu ‘cause quality is really important,” Williams said.
WATCH | How Manhattin Kitchen & Eatery launched during the pandemic:
A few months into the pandemic, It became apparent that basic ingredients such as cauliflower and avocado would not be available at the local produce store.
“They were always out of stock, so I, unfortunately, had to have the item left out as opposed to replacing it with a different product,” she said.
Head chef Garfield Williams has worked in the culinary industry for more than 30 years. he’s worked for The Keg, Pickle Barrel and the Frankie Tomatto’s, which closed due to COVID and self-serve buffet restrictions.
The pandemic’s effect on restaurants
In March 2020, the food sector lost nearly $20 billion in sales according to Restaurants Canada. To put that in perspective, the industry generates approximately $93 billion a year. Paula and Garfield Williams were among the bunch who, before Manhattin, relied heavily on working for multiple big-chain restaurants in Ontario as caterers.
Manhattin Kitchen & Eatery started out as a family catering business called Catered Delights. In the past, they’ve supplied their delicious food to major events such as Crave the Event and Toronto’s largest summer attraction — Caribana.
“Their menu is amazing,” said Biruck Nebey, a local student from the University of Ontario. “It caters to all people of all ages, and they try to give back to the community.”
Over the past year, the restaurant has gained a reputation for hiring locals. With many young adults losing their jobs due to the pandemic, the restaurant opened its doors to those in need.
“One of our first struggles was hiring,” Williams said. “There was nobody to work at all; we had to scramble and get neighbours, friends and family.”
Many of the customers often come by just to have a conversation. Williams says it’s always nice to see so many people laughing and smiling, simply because this pandemic has been rough.
Maintaining personal connections is something that the restaurant values deeply, according to Cruz Indya, an employee who’s been with Manhattin from the start.
Word of mouth helped restaurant succeed
“Working in a pandemic is difficult because you don’t really get to talk to people,” said Cruz Indya, an employee at Manhattin in Brooklin, Ont. “There’s a diverse community that we cater to, but in close retrospect, it’s kind of hard when you have frequent customers that want to come in and talk to you.”
It’s through these personal connections that the business caught the attention of Eric Novak, a business professor at Seneca College who also independently runs Durham Region Eats, a local Facebook page with more than 53,000 members.
Many businesses weren’t prepared for the sudden shutdown the pandemic brought, but it did generate an unexpected opportunity to succeed, he said.
“I really enjoyed dining there,” Novak said on Facebook. “Once word gets out, it will become very popular not only with locals but with people from across Durham and beyond.”
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- This Toronto startup made an app to help small restaurants survive the pandemic
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- How Toronto’s restaurants are feeding frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic