winter patios toronto

Toronto restaurant owners frustrated after building winterized patios they can't use

Toronto restaurant owners have sunk a ton of money, labour and time into the construction of winterized patios this year, but are now being forced to close them in the face of a lockdown.

Indoor dining has been closed in Toronto for over a month now despite the usual plummeting temperatures of the season, pushing restaurants to transform their patios normally meant for sweaty summer crowds into outdoor dining rooms that were not only heated and covered, but also properly ventilated and distanced according to health guidelines.

This took considerable effort, and the restaurants that were able to pull it off are none too happy now that they're left unable to even use the space they've worked so hard to open in order to supplement their business during this difficult time.

Investing in outdoor spaces

"We're extremely disappointed that we won't be able to have patrons on our newly renovated patio this winter. Without getting into numbers, we invested a great deal in building the outdoor space and purchasing heaters. We closed for two days to get this work done," says Amalan Vijeyaratnam of longstanding Danforth pub Allen's.

"The frustration for us comes from the mixed signals from the government. We were told to get creative with our outdoor spaces and then we're shut down right before our busiest season. I think I can speak for many restaurants when I say that we want to be compliant. We follow all the guidelines, but the government has done an extremely poor job in planning out these lockdowns."

While it's been difficult to nail down a timeline for the pandemic for any of us, Vijeyaratnam says he would have traded a stricter lockdown earlier in exchange for locking down again now. 

"Many small businesses suffer, while big chains like Walmart thrive. Perhaps, a lockdown prior to this season would have been helpful? A real lockdown," says Vijeyaratnam.

"In order for us to get over this pandemic, we need stricter measures across the board. There needs to be commitment from everyone. Unfortunately, the hospitality industry has been ostracized."

Allen's is going to persist on a takeout only basis with a bottle shop selling local VQA wines and craft beer, and they also plan to sell pantry goods.

"This, along with the long-promised, but not yet received, government rent and wage support will hopefully help us survive the winter. I do not think this will be the case for a lot of restaurants, but I'm hoping and praying everyone pulls through," says Vijeyaratnam.

Nicholas Kiritsis of Anestis Taverna had just set up his fully winterized patio the day before the lockdown announcement was made on Friday, Nov. 20.

"We are so disappointed because all the previous time Mayor Tory was telling us build winter patios, and suddenly they decide, a second lockdown. We invested around $7,000 to do all this and buy heaters for patio, and now again only take out and delivery," says Kiritsis.

"I think the approach of the situation is so poor from the authorities. Lockdown with open schools, I think it's not the right decision and it's proven that for the COVID cases the restaurants are not the problem."

Holiday markets and pop-ups forced to change gears

Elaborate holiday pop-ups that have already been marketed and painstakingly prepared for such as Miracle, Holiday HillsSweaters n' Snowflakes and Thirsty Elf have certainly had some of the magic taken out of them, forced to pivot to distanced delivery and to-go options. Other markets and events have been outright cancelled.

"We invested months of work, tens of thousands of dollars, and a lot of heart and soul into Miracle at Stackt Market along with our staff, many of whom have been struggling to find solid work since the spring. We always knew this was a potential risk and planned accordingly," says Nick Kennedy of Miracle, as well as Civil Liberties and Vit Beo.

"Happily, we were able to join a venue like Stackt that is working with us and is very much in our corner.  Our thoughts are with other small businesses that didn’t have the advantage of building a pop-up from the ground up and are just trying to stay afloat in another shutdown."

For now they're pivoting with cocktail kit and glassware delivery complete with instructional videos with 10 per cent of proceeds still going to Nellie's. They're hoping to open when lockdown concludes, "and may have some other miracles up our sleeve before then" according to Kennedy.

"We are insanely proud of our team and the magical, physically distanced, and responsibly managed space we have created together. Obviously the health and wellness of our community is always of the foremost importance and we understand the need for a lockdown period," he says.

"We hope it leads to the desired outcome for Toronto and our healthcare workers. If the public health experts opinions shift and outdoor dinning is re-established, it would be a holiday miracle for our team, community, and charity partners."

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