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St. JOHN'S, N.L. - Mallard Cottage, one of St. John's most popular restaurants, can seat 72 dinners within the confines of its rustically charming location in Quidi Vidi Village. When tourists are around, a busy day can have 300 people come through its doors.
It's been over a month since the restaurant temporarily closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Co-owner and executive chef Todd Perrin has meanwhile kept himself busy looking after WaterWest Kitchen and Meats, which opened last year and is now serving customers via curbside pickup.
On Thursday, the provincial government announced details of what's in store for the public as it begins to lift some public health measures meant to prevent the virus from spreading. Working with a system of five alert levels, the province will move from level five to level four effective May 11.
Once Newfoundland and Labrador reaches alert level three, Perrin and other restauranteurs will have some decisions to make. It's at this point public health measures will be lifted to allow restaurants to serve seated guests at reduced occupancy.
"The restaurants are built on an economic model that is tied directly to the number of seats that you have," Perrin told The Telegram. "There's a lot of conversation about whether a restaurant's economic model is a good one or a bad one. But basically if you have a restaurant that has 65 seats, then that restaurant doesn't work if you can only use 40 of them. The math is not there."
That will leave restaurant owners and workers, most of whom are currently laid off in Newfoundland and Labrador, in a quandary as they determine how to best navigate the new normal left in the wake of COVID-19.
Barry Bennett is the general manager and co-owner of Vu Resto & Bistro, which opened last December on Duckworth Street. He's worked in the restaurant industry for 35 years and has never witnessed a challenge comparable to the one presented by this global pandemic.
"I've seen it with regards to the economy," he said. "It's kind of like a rollercoaster. It trends and peaks and bottoms out. But this, I've never seen anything like this in my time in the restaurant business."
Coming on the heels of the state of emergency in St. John's following January's major blizzard, it has not been an easy start for Bennett and his business partner, executive chef Chris Chafe.
"This is challenging, but you work hard at it and keep your chin up and power on," Bennett said.
Vu has remained open for takeout and is doing well with that, selling out of dishes some days. Looking ahead to when the restaurant can once again accommodate seated guests, Bennett is fairly optimistic about Vu's chances of weathering the storm. Unlike some restaurants in downtown St. John's, Vu has a lot of space to work with — three rooms spread out on two floors. Its seating capacity is 180, and Bennett reckons the business can survive operating with reduced occupancy.
"We will maybe have to remove every second table in the dining room, but then we actually talked about yesterday getting some plexiglass and making sure the booths are separate. Maybe use every second booth if we need to. It will be a bit of a challenge, but I think we have an advantage over most restaurants."
Additionally, VU has benefited from federal government subsidies and a understanding landlord, according to Bennett.
Perrin is seemingly less optimistic about his own business and the industry in general.
"All of us in the restaurant business are wondering how it's all going to pan out for us," he said. "It's not looking very promising, because I think that the world of crowds not being able to gather and social distancing ... it strikes directly at the heart of our businesses. It's a difficult thing to see how we're going to navigate through it and to come out the other side, given that we don't know if it's going to be two weeks or 12 months of these kinds of restrictions and this level of minimizing people getting together.
"We're in the people business, not the food business. And when you can't have a crowd of people, that makes it difficult to do what we do."
A question mark hangs over exactly what will need to be done in order to re-open, he noted, adding it is almost impossible to practice physical distancing when serving seated guests.
"How do you lay a plate of food on someone's table and keep social distancing? Right off the bat, social distancing is out the window. Does that mean servers are going to have to wear masks and gloves and visors? Who knows."
As for the capacity issue, Perrin said most expenses are locked in, even with fewer people to serve.
"Clearly, at diminished capacities, it's not much different than this curbside takeout stuff, to be honest. The costs are still relevant. Your rent is the same. Your heat and light is the same. Everything is the same. The only thing that's a little bit less is you'd be buying a bit less food because you're serving less people, and your staff is marginally less than it would be, but it wouldn't be significantly less. You have the same amount of staff to do 150 people as you do to do 60 people basically."
While a restaurant could consider raising prices to deal with the loss of seats, Perrin is not convinced now is the right time to make that move.
"I don't know about raising prices," he said. "Raising prices in this environment from the public's perspective and the customer's perspective — people would probably not take to that very kindly."
Perrin expects to be involved in some frank discussions in the lead up to any potential re-opening for Mallard Cottage.
"We've talked about it internally. If we do come back to a scenario where we're allowed only certain numbers of people and certain numbers of people at a table ... we'd just have to sit down and look really hard at the totality of that rule and how it works exactly and all that stuff. Because it doesn't make sense to open up a restaurant that's built to serve 350 people a day to serve 100 people a day. It doesn't make any sense."