How to open a restaurant in a pandemic

‘The notion of operating on a decreased capacity is not foreign to us’

How to open a restaurant in a pandemic
The Charcoal Group is opening a new Beertown restaurant in Barrie, Ont.

Despite lockdowns in certain parts of the province, one chain restaurant operator feels the time is right to open a new location in Ontario.

The Charcoal Group — which runs a number of different brands such as Charcoal Steakhouse, Wildcraft Grill and Bar and Moose Winooski’s throughout the province — will open its newest Beertown restaurant in Barrie, on Nov. 26, if all goes according to plan.

“The biggest question I get asked is, ‘You’re opening in the middle of a pandemic, when 10,000 restaurants, according to [industry association] Restaurants Canada, have already closed in the country, and another 10,000 are expected to close in the next few months, and you guys are opening?’ The answer to that is these deals take so many years to get going; we’ve been working on this for four years,” says managing partner Jody Palubiski

The newest location was envisioned before anybody had heard about COVID-19.

“By the time you come to mutually positive agreement with a landlord in the form of a lease and then you start getting site-plan approvals in the design phase, these things take much longer than people realize. A four-year project is coming to fruition at a time that’s fraught with difficulty,” says Palubiski.

During training of the new staff, management donned personal protective equipment (PPE) which will become part of the dining experience in Ontario, according to Palubiski.

“We had everybody in high protection and masks. Our leaders are doing all of the training wearing the same materials. For the most part, for the great majority of the training, you’re dealing with smaller groups of people and just ensuring your spacing and you’re wearing PPE and washing hands and making sure you’re doing all the right things and using that as an opportunity to drive home just how important it is to not only their community, but to us as a company.”

The Charcoal Group has its own COVID playbook, which is available on the website and details how it ensures staff and customer safety, he says.

“When you look at the point-of-sale systems that all the servers and bartenders use, most of the time, they use their finger as a stylist. During this time, we’ve got everyone proper styluses so they’re not touching those things. We’ve changed up the antiviral chemicals we use to clean tables and surfaces in between use. We now are at a three-stage program every time we reset a table.”

Jody Palubiski

And every half-hour, a “cleaning” song plays at the restaurant, reminding workers to pause and clean surfaces.

“Those songs, they’re not meant for the general public to recognize as a cleaning song, they’re for us to prod each other to go in and sterilize all surfaces every half an hour. We have some fun with ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ or ‘U Can’t Touch This’ or ‘Get Back,’ just as a reminder for our team.”

The new location in Barrie will also open to a lesser capacity at first, which fits nicely into the company’s opening plans in past, he says.

“Normally with an opening, you tend to remove some tables anyway because you want to build confidence in your culinary and your service team; you’re not trying to max out the business. The notion of operating on a decreased capacity is not foreign to us when we’re opening restaurants. We probably wouldn’t go to a 50 per cent [capacity], but it’s not uncommon to go to 70 or 75 per cent while we perfect the team element of this.”

Meanwhile, the government of Ontario announced that more than 200 enforcement officers will fan out to workplaces to ensure that protocols are being followed, and the province has also encouraged companies to allow people to work from home whenever possible.

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