One temporarily closed in order to stay open. One transformed from fine dining into a lunchtime food truck. One finally reopened and is now BYOB — bring your own blanket. One was saved by a young family member willing to switch careers.
That’s a synopsis of what I found during recent check-ins with four local restaurants I reported on last spring, two months into the COVID-19 pandemic. From the initial shutdown to the recent extension of the provincial ban on indoor dining, restaurants have been in survival mode for more than a year, particularly those that rely heavily on tourism.
Yet, thanks to government supports, community response and an impressive ability to adapt to changing circumstances, these and other local restaurants are still giving it a go and, for the most part, are guardedly optimistic about the future.
Campaigns to support local restaurants
“We’re very impressed by the restaurants and the resilience and the ability to shift gears very quickly,” says Kirsty Grant, visitor services co-ordinator of the Cowichan Regional Visitor Centre. She says that while the restaurants are facing a long recovery, it helps that the community has been responsive to campaigns urging support for local businesses.
For example, last month’s fifth annual Dine & Sip Cowichan culinary festival, organized by the Duncan Cowichan Chamber of Commerce, featured 34 local restaurants and 12 beverage producers. According to chamber executive director Sonja Nagel, the festival’s well-received message was “get out there and support these local restaurants and eateries because they’re not going to be here if you’re not getting out.” She adds that it was fortuitous that the festival ended the day before the initial three-week circuit breaker restrictions were announced, which suspended indoor dining.
Despite varying warnings and restrictions on travel, the region has seen some tourists during the pandemic. The visitor centre reopened last June, when B.C. entered Phase 3 of its restart plan, which allowed for tourism within the province. Officially B.C. has not welcomed tourists from outside the province since the pandemic began, however in the absence of clear and enforceable restrictions, tourists have still come.
Grant says numbers at the visitor centre were significantly down from previous years, but there were many visitors from the Lower Mainland, Alberta and elsewhere. And then in the winter, she says there was an unusually high influx of “snowbirds” from across Canada, who came to Cowichan instead of places such as Mexico and Arizona due to border restrictions. Many Canadians who live in motorhomes year-round flocked to B.C. this past winter in a bid to escape colder parts of the country.
The chamber of commerce distributed about 50 per cent more winter welcome packages than usual, which include vouchers and coupons for local businesses. According to Grant, “It did really work well for the restaurant industry because there was a whole segment of the population for whom Cowichan was brand new; they were experiencing it for the first time and they wanted to get out.”
However, she doesn’t expect the new provincial enforcement of restrictions on non-essential travel to our health region to have a big impact on local restaurants. “Locals supporting locals will prevail,” Grant says. “Most local restaurants have created safe outdoor dining and takeaway options, which are being supported by people within their own community or adjacent ones.”
Feeling grateful, feeling frustrated in Genoa Bay
Of the four restaurants profiled last spring, the Genoa Bay Cafe was the only that hadn’t yet reopened after initial pandemic shutdowns. According to co-owner Diana Madsen, takeout didn’t seem a winning proposition for a destination restaurant.
However, when the restaurant eventually opened in late May thanks to the many government supports, Madsen says they were pleasantly surprised to find that there was an audience for takeout, particularly among boaters. She says that their chef adapted the menu to focus on food that “travels well.”
A bigger challenge, she found, was staffing. As a result, the restaurant was only open seven days a week for five weeks of the summer, closed on Mondays and Tuesdays the rest of the time. “Normally we go from May 1 to mid-October seven days a week, but we couldn’t get bodies,” Madsen explains.
To accommodate an increased demand for outdoor dining, the restaurant added a second waterfront patio area, where people can bring dogs and kids can play on the beach. She says the recent ban on indoor dining convinced them to open on Wednesdays and Thursdays for lunch even though it’s still the shoulder season, to take advantage of having two patios.
Although it’s a “solar-powered business” — because business is much better on sunny days — Madsen says people are still coming to eat outside out on cooler days. Diners are adapting, too. The restaurant encourages customers to bring throw blankets, and Madsen says that some people have even brought heating pads or portable propane heaters. “They’re dressing up like they’re watching that outdoor sporting event in the winter,” she says.
When indoor dining was allowed, people appreciated the privacy offered by stylish Plexiglass dividers placed between tables, Madsen says. She adds that they’ve had several requests to keep the dividers up post-COVID, a time that can’t come too soon.
“Sometimes we feel really grateful — just the fact that we’re open. Other times, you feel frustrated, because we’re not up and running like we were two years ago,” she says. “My fingers are crossed that we get back to full in-house dining pretty soon.”
Having to close to remain open in Cowichan Bay
Because of COVID, it made better financial sense to close for three months this winter, says Rock Cod Cafe owner Jacob Hokanson. It was a possibility he had anticipated when interviewed last spring, and while he really hoped he could keep his Cowichan Bay restaurant open all year as usual, he calculated that his losses from closing would be less than staying open for limited crowds during his slow season.
“Financially, I was better off closing considering … the fact that I’m a destination not located in town,” Hokanson says.
The Rock Cod reopened in early March, but the long time off made it challenging to retain staff. Hokanson says that due to the “catastrophic” loss of three key cooks, the restaurant is closed on Tuesdays. He worries that he may have to close an additional day if he doesn’t find suitable replacement cooks soon. “It’s unheard of going into the spring and summer to be closed two days of the week in Cowichan Bay,” he says.
But when we spoke in mid-April, he was fairly upbeat despite the three-week “circuit-breaker” ban on indoor dining. With a brisk takeout business as well as patio renovations made possible by a B.C. small business recovery grant, Hokanson says the restaurant was bringing in about half as much money as usual for this time of year and he was anticipating a better summer than last year.
“Between that 50 per cent revenue, and all of the subsidies and the grants and all the stuff that the government’s been doing for us, I still have hope,” he says.
A week later, after the province extended the indoor dining ban through the May long weekend and added travel restrictions, that hope had mostly dissipated.
“I was holding out hope that there was a light at the end of the tunnel and I’m deeply questioning if there actually is,” Hokanson says. “Will we in fact be able to go back to indoor dining at the end of May? It just kind of all feels a bit hopeless right now. I guess we will just keep trucking along until we can’t anymore.”
Sky of blue and sea of green in Chemainus
For a decade, Murray Kereliuk and his wife Marina ran the Odika Cafe, situated a block behind the Chemainus Theatre. When COVID caused the theatre to cancel its season last spring, he switched the menu from fine dining to pub fare in an attempt to build a more local customer base. But it wasn’t long before they realized they needed to make a much bigger change.
“We had put a lot of hours into that place and a lot of our lives into that place, and to actually be in a position after 10 years to not even be able to make a living was really hard,” he recalls. “We were ready to move on.”
Nine months ago, Kereliuk sold the restaurant and bought an old Booster Juice food truck and converted it into the Yellow Sub Machine, offering gourmet subs. He made an arrangement to rent space from the Highway Antique Barn in Chemainus and, after a lengthy licensing process, the food truck made its debut on March 12.
As a result, the Kereliuks weren’t impacted when the ban on indoor dining went into effect on March 30. “We were just like, ‘Oh, thank god we don’t have the restaurant anymore,’” he says.
He says he appreciates the simplicity of owning a food truck, including not having to manage any employees. He cooks and Marina takes orders from inside the truck. Kereliuk says he uses meats imported from Italy and, in addition to five regular sub options, there is a weekly special sub such as Spanish chorizo or Korean barbecue pork.
The new setup means that instead of a core audience of theatre patrons, the Yellow Sub Machine is catering to a local lunchtime crowd. The Yellow Sub Machine is open for lunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, hours that Kereliuk says are more conducive to family life.
“Right now we’re just focused on making sure we got enough to pay our mortgages and our bills. We have a lot of bills left over for the restaurant … and we were losing money for a long time before we closed,” Kereliuk says. “I don’t know if it’s going to get us out of debt super fast, but I’m confident we’ll make a living doing it.”
Keeping the family business going in Glenora
Last fall, when 29-year-old Marley Bates heard that his parents Katy and John Ehrlich were contemplating not running their seasonal Alderlea Farm Café in 2021 to focus more on farming, he was concerned. In response to COVID, the café in Glenora had only been open on Sundays in 2020, instead of the usual Friday through Sunday. But Bates says he knew it was still a profitable venture that attracted a lot of tourists as well as locals.
“My whole life I’ve been obsessed with cooking … so I figured why not give it a shot.” he says. His mother had been dropping hints for years that she would love to have one of her kids take over the café someday, says Bates, who had already decided that he was done going away each summer to work as a fishing guide in Kyuquot, a remote village on the west coast of northern Vancouver Island.
“My parents built up such an awesome business, and it’s just so cool to be able to keep it going,” he says.
In preparation for the café’s usual reopening in mid-March, Bates expanded the kitchen and renovated the indoor dining area to allow for better spacing. He says that while he expected that COVID-related restrictions would last for a while, he says the “circuit breaker” restrictions were a bit of a setback, especially with inclement weather the first weekend after the announcement.
“When they closed indoor dining again that was a pretty big shock, but I knew if that ever did happen, it wasn’t really going to be a huge issue for us, because we have so much outdoor space,” says Bates, who is in the process of expanding and sprucing up some of the areas for outdoor dining.
His mother, who is enjoying focusing on the farm’s community supported agriculture program, which is already providing subscribers with weekly vegetables, says it feels wonderful to see her son thriving in his new role.
“The café is going to even be better with Marley at the helm,” Ehrlich says. “I’m just hoping for his sake … that these restrictions aren’t going to last too long.”