While the pandemic hit the bottom line of restaurants across the country, as summer arrived it was restaurateurs on P.E.I. who were hit the hardest.
Tourism numbers released by the province last week showed the Atlantic bubble, which opened July 3, did not bring large numbers of travellers to the Island, and a Statistics Canada report released this week showed that impact on restaurants.
Compared to last July, P.E.I. showed the largest percentage drop in revenues among the provinces, down 34.6 per cent. Nationally the decrease was 24.5 per cent.
Table service is bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Limited-service restaurant business was running at more than 90 per cent of 2019 levels, while full-service restaurant business was cut in half. (Full service means table service, and limited service is everything else from cafeteria style to takeout).
Shrunken dining rooms
Beyond the lack of tourists, full-service restaurants suffered cuts to the number of tables allowed under public health measures brought in to limit the spread of COVID-19.
For restaurants that could manage it, patios became a saving grace.
The deck overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence has always been an important feature of the Sou’West Bar and Grill in New London.
“Obviously it’s a tough season,” said Sou’West owner Mitch Gallant.
“We’re certainly happier with the numbers than what I had originally forecasted. Coming into the season, I didn’t think we’d be anywheres close to where we are now.”
Locals turned out to support the business, said Gallant, and because of the deck, sunny weather was also a factor.
“The weather was awesome so basically the deck was in business every day we were open,” he said.
‘Patio has been a lifesaver’
In Charlottetown, Slaymaker & Nichols Owner Steve Murphy is doing what he can to extend the deck season.
Slaymaker & Nichols was always a small restaurant, but with pandemic restrictions inside, space shrunk to seven tables. A patio was added in the spring.
“The patio has been a lifesaver for us,” said Murphy.
“Without it we would have had such limited seating inside we would never have survived.”
As the weather gets cooler, Murphy is trying to extend the season. He has put Plexiglas up on top of the low wooden walls, providing wind protection to a height of just over two metres. With patio heaters and blankets, he hopes to create a cosy outdoor space well into October, and reopen it as early as April.
“We’re going to go as long as people are willing to sit outside,” he said.
“With only seven tables inside we really need to make this work.”
‘We have seats inside’
Kevin Murphy, CEO of Murphy Hospitality Group, which operates 16 restaurants, is not making any changes to patios. He doesn’t see the benefit of investing in a few extra weeks of added space.
“A small restaurant with fewer seats inside might look at closing in a patio and heating it,” he wrote in an email to CBC News.
“Very difficult for us to go there when we have seats inside.”
Murphy would like to see P.E.I. change its rule about a maximum of 50 people in a dining room. He would like the Island to adopt restrictions similar to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, which focus solely on the distance between tables, without setting a maximum room occupancy.