'We haven’t seen a slowdown yet [from COVID-19], but we know it’s coming to our whole sector,' says David Minicucci (right) who, with partner Rob Rossi, opened Guiulietta in 2018    RICK O'BRIEN

How the coronavirus is affecting food service businesses

Regulars at the popular Italian eatery Giulietta, in Toronto’s west end, are used to being greeted by a smiling host or hostess who takes their coat, directs them to their table and puts them at ease.

For the last few weeks, however, patrons have been grateful for one more front-door service: a “sanitation station,” as well as a discreet swipe of the door handle after each person passes through.

“I remember SARS and its impact on the restaurant industry,” says David Minicucci who, with partner Rob Rossi, opened Guiulietta in 2018. (It was ranked this country’s best new restaurant the following year by Canada’s 100 Best.) “We haven’t seen a slowdown yet [from COVID-19], but we know it’s coming to our whole sector.

“Previously we cleaned the bathrooms every hour – now it’s every 15 minutes. We wipe down the phones and the point-of-sale terminals after each use, and usually in front of our customers so they can see we’re doing our jobs,” Minicucci says. “In this environment, the best defence is to take clean to a whole new level.”

That will unquestionably help, but hospitality consultant David Hopkins, president of Toronto-based The Fifteen Group, says the food service industry is bracing for a significant drop in business as diners shun public places in the foreseeable future.

The decline in guests that many Asian restaurants across Canada began experiencing three weeks ago is spreading to quick-serve and fine-dining establishments of all types. In the next two months alone, Hopkins estimates Canada’s annual $85-billion restaurant industry will see sales drop by 20 per cent (or about $1.3-billion).

“We’ve been told to avoid public spaces – and a restaurant is a public space – so I understand people’s anxiety about eating out,” Hopkins says. “Heck, even I would much rather eat a place where there is no one within five feet of my table.

“But people should also stop and take a deep breath. If you are taking the subway, then you should be eating at restaurants. If you went the other night to a Leafs game, then you should be eating at restaurants. The reality is restaurants are probably less dangerous – because of rigorous health and safety standards – than most other public spaces,” Hopkins adds.

Logic, however, is hard for the average person to hang on to as cases of COVID-19 continue to spread.

Technomic, a Chicago-based food-service research and consultant company, released a survey earlier this month that found more than three in 10 consumers said they will not eat out as often because of COVID-19. Of those, 31 per cent said that decreased frequency will last for between one to three months, the company reported.

Julie van Rosendaal a food writer based out of Calgary, says the ripple effect is already entrenched in tourist hot spots such as Banff. The decline in global travel, combined with conference cancellations, means large hotels, restaurants, fast-casual eateries and distilleries in the Rocky Mountain town are feeling the pinch.

"However, I’m particularly concerned for the small independent restaurants across Canada whose profit margins are already slim,” says van Rosendaal, who explains that two per cent is average, while 4 per cent is considered doing well.

In the event you are afraid to go out, one of the best ways to support your favourite local restaurant is to buy gift cards online, Van Rosendaal says. “It’s an easy way to support small operators, to help them get through the next few months. I’m afraid we’re going to see a lot of closures over the spring, and gift cards could give them the boost they need.”

When the coronavirus first hit, Catherine Hou, president of the Chinese Cuisine and Hospitality Association of Canada (CCHAC), says her members saw business decrease between 30 and 80 per cent. To help them bounce back her organization launched an event called Asialicious in Toronto that ran from Feb. 14 to 28.

“We saw our members recoup about half of the revenue they lost,” Hou says. “But the global spread of the disease is starting to negate any of the gains we made. I was in Vancouver recently and about half the [Chinese] restaurants near Richmond, B.C. were temporarily closed.

“We try to get the message out that we are lucky in this country to have such stringent health and sanitation standards. Public health officials audit, they do reports, and they will shut you down if there is any sign of an issue. Unfortunately, people’s fears are such that this message often falls on deaf ears.”

Giulietta’s Minicucci says his customers tell him they appreciate the extra measures he and his staff are taking to ensure his restaurant is as sanitary as can be. But, he adds, they are also careful not to overdo it for fear of further freaking people out.

“Once guests vacate the tables, we wipe them down thoroughly. However, we try to do this as discreetly as we can. It is a dining experience after all, and we don’t want our guests to feel like they’re having dinner in a hospital.”

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