As the unknown of winter looms, restaurants look back on the summer that was

By Sue Tiffin

Mid-September, Felicia Dai, co-owner of Win Yeung Chinese Restaurant in Haliburton posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page that, since the restaurant has not been open for dine-in service since March, they had two boxes of dated paper placemats sitting unused. After seeing her daughter’s interest in drawing and practicing writing, Dai offered the placemats free to fellow parents who might need paper to keep their kids entertained during a time of pandemic restrictions and home-school.

The offer is a thoughtful and innovative way to adapt during a year that has brought numerous surprises and changes throughout the world, including within the restaurant industry. In the eighth month of the COVID-19 pandemic, local restaurant owners take a breath after getting through a summer like no other, and while looking forward to a colder season during what has already been declared as the province’s second wave.
“We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing, only doing take-out, and just keep ourselves safe,” said Dai.

Dai and husband Kam Li have been operating by take-out only since Ontario’s lockdown in March, despite provincial reopening stages allowing for indoor dining since then. Dai said during the first wave, the couple had decided not to open the indoor dining area to keep themselves and their four-year-old daughter – who has stayed with them throughout the day – safe, and because of few staff and a lack of patio space. Instead, they’ve been creative to make things work in as pleasant a way as possible in other ways – making a take-out system from the beginning, and using chalk to make a hopscotch board in their parking lot to keep customers entertained while waiting for their order.

“We are still doing OK, fortunately Chinese food is kind of popular for take-out,” said Dai. “So we’re still doing OK. For the people who want to do dine-in, I just feel sorry, because I just can’t do that … I hope people don’t feel bad about it.”

The pandemic has been especially difficult on the working couple, who only took the restaurant on in recent years, as their daughter has been with them as they work.

“She stayed with me the whole time,” said Dai. “She stayed with me, that’s why it’s hard for me to open the dining as well. I cannot keep her, like me, wearing a mask for 24 hours.”

The increasing case count has made it difficult for her family from Toronto to visit, even in a park, with Dai saying there’s just too much to think about – sanitizing hands and keeping distance.

“In China, now my family already have gone back to their normal ways, they go outside to play, hang out with friends, travel around, that’s awesome,” she said. “Really lucky, my parents are still there, so I’m so happy they can do the normal way they’re doing. I hope we can do that as soon as possible as well.”

And here, in Ontario, what does Dai think winter will look like for the restaurant?

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t have any idea. It’s too hard to think about.”
She said you never know what’s going to happen next, whether the situation will get better or worse.

“So I don’t know,” she said. “I just do my best, step by step.”
Besides opening the flagship restaurant to indoor seating and take-out, the Kosy Korner opened a seasonal patio next to the building, and the Kosy Shack, an outpost on Twelve Mile Lake at Wedgewood Marina, which owner Ann Gordon said made up for business lost in reducing numbers in the restaurant’s inside dining area, but the two additional venues will close with cooler weather and to meet Dysart’s patio extension deadline.

“Judging by what I’ve seen through COVID tracking, there’s not a whole lot of locals coming in, and that’s going to be our bread and butter over the winter, so we’re just going to kind of wait and see if they return or not,” said Gordon. “We’re busy, but I believe we’re busy with non-local people and that’s going to sustain us for one more week. Then we’ve got to get the locals back in.”

That’s why Gordon has hired a new manager with 30 years’ experience, and staff has been decorating for the new season.

“We are getting locals in, but not the groups that used to come in,” said Gordon. “Kosy was a mainstay for a number of large groups that came in every day, and those people aren’t coming back in.”

Gordon is hoping those familiar customers return now that fall has arrived and the population has decreased.

“We’re hoping the locals come back because that’s going to make or break us.”

Staff at the Kosy has been putting much effort into ensuring safety precautions are taken inside the building.

“We’ve got the COVID tracking, we’ve got six feet apart between tables, we’ve got half the restaurant shut down, we wipe the tables down with bleach in between, we wipe the menus down with bleach, the sugar containers and salt con tainers and ketchup containers – everything is wiped down with bleach,” said Gordon. “It would be, I think, pretty hard to catch COVID in my restaurant.”

Diners sanitize their hands before entering the restaurant, and Gordon said, “every single time someone touches something, it gets wiped down.”

Gordon is hoping that shut-downs will occur in hotspots, but that up here, with Haliburton County’s current confirmed cases at one, “we can squeak by.” Running a restaurant during the pandemic has been a difficult situation to be in, she said.

“I want [residents] to know that it’s safe to come in to Kosy and please come back, or these institutions, these destinations won’t be there,” she said. “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. “

Baked and Battered saw a busy season, opening their patio, a take-out window they had in place from when they first designed the restaurant, and online ordering.

“We’re doing well, it was a busy season,” said Colby Marcellus, before the restaurant closed for the year on Thanksgiving Sunday. “It wasn’t as busy as previous years, we were a little bit down, but because of the model that we adopted, we still ended up having a solid year altogether.”

Marcellus said he did feel fortunate that the patio and take-out system could work safely at a time that was tough for so many, especially those without a patio set-up.

“We’re very, very grateful for the kind of support that we got over the summer,” he said. “I think it would have been very easy for people to be frightened away because of COVID, and instead I noticed that a lot of the folks – locals and people who were visiting from out of town – were very supportive of local businesses. We are so incredibly grateful for that because it could have been something far, far worse.”

Working with a smaller staff, Marcellus said the team had different kind of work than usual.

“Because we had to change our model to take-out, that ended up eliminating certain things, certain tasks around dishwashing, for instance, where having a lot of plates and silverware and whatnot, we would have had to have managed all those,” he said. “For safety reasons, being able to do takeout and rely on as much biodegradable and disposable things as possible, staff felt safer and it cut down on some of the work so it made the workload overall much more manageable.”

Marcellus said during the summer they did see higher numbers of people from outside the community, but not to an extreme extent and that locals that tend to be the restaurant’s mainstay during shoulder seasons had returned recently.

“People were very careful, and very considerate, and really quite lovely,” he said of customers. “Generally people were happy to be out, happy to go to a restaurant and have some sort of resemblance of normalcy while still feeling confident that they were safe.”

Baked and Battered closed on Thanksgiving Sunday for the winter, as per their typical business model.

“It’s a big question mark, isn’t it?” he said, in response to when they might reopen in 2021. “Usually we can nail down the date we’re going to re-open before we close the previous year. We’re reticent to do that because we don’t know what the COVID situation is going to look like and if we’re forced to have to continue doing more of a take-out patio model, then we realize that won’t be possible during the snowier months. We’re shooting for March again but we’re keeping it loose at this point. It’d be really nice to have things back to normal, wouldn’t it?”

Luke Schell, president of the Haliburton BIA, had hope for a strong winter season, and said the BIA welcomes any snowbirds and cottagers who might be spending more time here this winter.

“Many who would normally be heading south for the winter may be here to enjoy our beautiful Haliburton winter season,” he wrote in an email to the Echo. “It would not be surprising if our ‘shoulder’ season, and the winter are better than usual for downtown businesses.”

Restaurants in the area were able to operate with indoor seating since July 13, when the Ontario government moved to the Stage 3 part of their reopening plan.

“This will continue to be the case, unless new public health measures have to be put in place this fall and winter by the Ontario government due to COVID-19,” said Richard Ovcharovich, the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit’s manager of health protection.

“Recently, the province did put in additional restrictions on bars and restaurants in COVID-19 ‘hot spots’ like Toronto, Peel Region and Ottawa (including capacity limits and seating restrictions),” said Ovcharovich. “However, these restrictions do not apply in Haliburton County, Northumberland County or the City of Kawartha Lakes.”

Currently, said Ovcharovich, local restaurants can continue to allow indoor patrons with no specific capacity limits provided they follow certain rules, which include ensuring everyone inside the restaurant wears a mask or face covering unless seated at a table or on an outdoor patio; not serving buffet-style meals; ensuring a separation of tables; only serving alcohol up to 11 p.m. and closing at midnight; keeping client logs and carrying out frequent cleaning and disinfecting of the premises.

“The health unit encourages local restaurants/bars to continue remaining vigilant against COVID-19,” said Ovcharovich. “Keeping up these important public health measures is important for protecting restaurant staff and customers. That’s good for business… as well as the health of the entire community.”

Restaurant owners, operators or staff with questions about COVID-19 prevention measures, can call the health unit at 1-866-888-4577, ext. 5006.