‘Give us a chance to survive’: One of Toronto’s most successful restaurateurs says bars and restaurants have been unfairly singled out

Charles Khabouth

5 min. read

An industry friend posted a video plea this week, with tears pouring down his face, admitting that defeat is near. His raw emotion expressing restaurateurs’ collective frustration.

After eight long months of pandemic restrictions, adaptations, closures, renovations, retraining, reopenings, and further closures, Toronto’s restaurant industry — once the city’s crowning glory — is on the brink of collapse.

Since the beginning, we have been willing to do our part. We’ve made every modification asked of us throughout this entire pandemic. Four of my nightclubs were shut down completely, for the long haul and for understandable reasons. But when my restaurants were allowed to reopen, my team and I reinvented ourselves again and again beyond our wildest expectations.

We entered the drive-in business. We began offering takeout and delivery. We built new physically-distanced outdoor patios, and then invested thousands winterizing them.

We retrained staff 10 times over to keep up with the rules and regulations as they change. We enforced new measures I never thought possible: contact tracing, temperature checks, distanced tables, masked staff, and an all-new standard of sanitization measures.

It was far from business as usual but I respected it until we were forced to close two more times.

I have watched in disbelief as our globe fell under the grip of this virus, and government officials put a target on the back of restaurants.

Fiercely regulated at the best of times, restaurants have been uniquely and unfairly targeted during the pandemic. Five weeks ago, we were again forced to close indoor dining. Yet, during those weeks, COVID-19 case counts continued to rise. Clearly, there is no correlation between dining indoors and virus infections, and yet restaurants were hit again this week with another 28-day restriction.

Now I have to ask: How many more hoops are they going to ask us to jump through? How long do they expect us to wait patiently while we are disproportionally hit, receiving misinformation and conflicting direction from all levels of government? How long can we ride this roller-coaster?

I’ve built my life in the hospitality industry over the last 37 years. It is made up of some of the best people I’ve had the privilege to know. Creative and dedicated, from all walks of life, restaurant staff are often underappreciated and overlooked, and we are feeling that more than ever right now.

The brutal reality of the situation is that many restaurateurs are questioning how to pay their mortgage or rent this month, struggling to determine if their business can survive another month without indoor dining as we tiptoe up to winter.

This season is notoriously slow after the holidays. And with restaurants closed for indoor dining, this year’s festivities will inevitably be hosted in homes with minimal, if any, regulations or restrictions. While Dr. de Villa recommends not socializing with others outside your household, pandemic fatigue has set in and people are already privately gathering. It’s human nature, and that recommendation is clearly out of touch.

People will gather. Mightn’t it be wiser, safer, and more prudent for them to do so in carefully regulated restaurants, rather than crammed into cramped living rooms?

Dining at a restaurant may not be essential for most, but the livelihoods that this industry provides — from the servers, chefs, dishwashers, and bussers to the marketers, entertainers, farmers, and purveyors — are essential, and at serious risk.

Restaurants have been unfairly singled out, used by the powers-that-be to demonstrate that some action is being taken to slow the spread. Of course, grocery stores are open because they are fundamental; but why are they not asked to contact trace and track their customers?

The TTC continues to operate without an ounce of mandatory distancing, so much so my sister had to wait for four buses to pass before finding one with some breathing room.

Recent statistics show the outbreak number connected to restaurants, bars, and clubs in the city were much lower than expected (a 14 percent increase from Aug. 1 to Oct. 24), and yet we have seen an uptick of cases despite the indoor dining prohibition. How is this yo-yo handling of our industry justifiable?

Despite Herculean efforts to keep working any way we can, my team and I have still had to lay off 78 percent of our over 2,000-person workforce, devastating hundreds of our deeply-valued employees.

Restaurants have infamously thin margins, averaging about 10 percent or less. For most, it takes about four to five years before they even start to turn a profit, keeping in mind Toronto has the highest rents across the entire country. This on-again-off-again handling of restaurants is lethal when you operate as we do.

Our industry is not an easy one, and it is especially wearing when our livelihood is in the hands of people without business backgrounds nor appreciation of our unique complexities (consider the continual purchasing and tossing of ingredients, alone, as our doors are opened only to be slammed shut again).

With commercial rents too high to qualify for government rent subsidies, it is not as simple for me and many others with larger establishments in prime locations to wait this out.