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Opening restaurants in the new normal

We spoke to two Montreal restaurateurs who were about to launch new businesses when the COVID-19 shutdown happened.

For better or worse, we are attempting to reclaim some sense of the former world. Swimming pools, movie theatres, shopping malls, gyms and restaurants are all reopening. While returning to a sense of the familiar is understandably comforting, the iconic, essential symbols of illness –– masks, visors, plexiglass dividers — are omnipresent, glaringly reinforcing the reality that everything is not as it once was, and may never be again. Faced with this realization, restaurants and all businesses are forced to reimagine themselves. However, there is a small subsection of restaurants — the ones who were in their early conception stages when the pandemic began — that are opening in a world drastically different than the one they were originally designed for. 

Opening restaurants might seem like a weird move in light of everything, but for some, it’s an opportunity to shape the new normal. These are businesses carving out a place for themselves in a hostile and untested new frontier. While it may seem grandiose, attempting to launch a new restaurant is already a game with the odds stacked against you, to do so while the rules are still being written is something else altogether. 

Yoni Amir, the owner of Mile End’s Falafel Yoni, is in the process of opening a new business called Pizza Toni in the coming weeks. Amir’s fast-casual take on Israeli street food was met with immediate success, so Yoni and his business partner decided the natural next move was to replicate the model and adapt it to another beloved food: pizza. 

A pepperoni pie from Pizza Toni

Amir describes his new restaurant simply: “It’s a slice joint. In feel and personality, it’s similar to the falafel joint, so it’s like a fast, casual, unpretentious place to get quick and cheap food. We’re doing a 20-inch pizza by the pie or by the slice.” As with his falafel spot, quality is key. “We want to use the best possible ingredients. We’re using Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes which are organic tomatoes from California. We’re getting the same pepperoni that’s used in New York — that’s not available in Montreal. We had to source it because it’s the best pepperoni. We’re trying to do the slice-joint justice.” 

The restaurant was set to open in early May but then COVID hit unexpectedly and set the opening date back in order to tinker with the model to better suit the current environment. For Yoni, getting COVID-safe required only a slight tweak to his original business model. “It’s set up to run as a take-out business. The only things that we really had to change was putting up a barier between the customer and the employee. Beyond that, everything is status quo for how the business will operate.”

Other restaurants, like the newly opened Bar Verdun Beach, were forced to push on with a concept that was deeply rooted in the way things used to be, so they’re banking on things going back to normal. “September [2019] we signed the lease, we did all the construction by February and in March we started to do soft openings. We were aiming for mid-April for the opening, then March 15th happened and the rest is history,” says Charles Garant, one of the principal owners of the bar. The idea was to create Verdun’s first natural wine bar –– a community spot with good food in a welcoming environment, a place to come for drinks and end up chatting and dancing long into the evening. Garant and his partners Marc Frandon and Philippe Jacquelin has a vision for the bar –– something entirely different from the reality currently possible. “We built this place to be packed. We wanted people to be stuck on each other. We kind of had the anti-COVID place (in mind), which is not optimal.” 

The bar is now reinventing itself as a restaurant first, one that also has a bar licence. “We were able to expand our front terrasse to about double regular capacity. With COVID, I have about 50 seats and without COVID I’d have about 80. But it’s not ideal.” Not ideal, indeed — 50 seats is a meager consolation for Garant and his team, but it’ll have to do for now, especially after losing months of essential revenue earning. 

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Bar Verdun Beach

While Amir saw financial benefit in not having opened before forced closures due to COVID-19, Garant suffered a significant financial toll. “If we would have opened, let’s say, in January or February, we would have recorded sales and we would have been able to participate in some of the governmental programs that help businesses.” After months of paying rent, mounting renovation costs and the cost of stocking a bar with hundreds of bottles of wine, some positive revenue is sorely needed. “Financially, it’s been really tough because we didn’t get any help from the government.” The various programs aimed to help small businesses survive COVID have been essential lifelines for so many in the industry, a lifeline not extended to new businesses that are already deeply in debt.

On a marketing side, Garant sees a silver lining. The buzz around his grand opening would have been cut short by the abrupt closure of restaurants, but after an official grand opening with a good turnout last week, a bright future for the restaurant is easier to envision. For both Amir and Garant, the future is a game of taking things as they come, adapting day by day and trying to do the nearly impossible: run a successful restaurant, a feat that’s impressive, pandemic or otherwise. 

In some ways, restaurateurs are particularly well suited for this new way of operating. Ask anyone who’s owned a restaurant and they’ll tell you that every day there’s a fire that needs putting out –– a million things can and will go wrong –– but a good restaurateur always pushes forward, making due even under the most challenging circumstances. COVID-19 is just another fire to put out, another no-show dishwasher, another broken line-fridge. It’s simply another hurdle in a race that can and will be overcome. ■

Find Pizza Toni details on the Falafel Yoni Facebook page

Bar Verdun Beach website

For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal (including restaurants that are opening and reopening), please visit the Food & Drink section.