Empty tables, uncertain futures: Winnipeg restaurants close during COVID-19 outbreak

By | March 17, 2020

Dozens of Winnipeg restaurants have shut down over the past few days, as Manitobans take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Tallest Poppy on Sherbrook Street is usually buzzing with customers, but its tables are now empty.

The owner of the trendy West Broadway diner, Talia Syire, says about 150 people showed up for Sunday brunch this week, but the big crowd felt risky, as Canadians practice self-isolation and social distancing.

Tallest Poppy owner, Talia Syire, isn’t sure her business will survive the closure. (Walther Vernal (CBC))

“There’s sort of been this big push on social media to make sure you’re supporting local business which is so kind,” she says. “But we just didn’t feel good about it.”

That’s left staff trying to figure out what to do next.

“We’re all unsure of the future, when we’ll get back to work, what we’ll do in the meantime for money.” says Patrick Anderson, a cook at the Sherbrook Street eatery.

“[Employment Insurance] is obviously really backed up right now, with lots of people being laid off.”

Tallest Poppy cook, Patrick Anderson, says the uncertainty about employment is worrisome. (Walther Vernal (CBC))

Anderson has savings to fall back on, but part-time server Rebecca McIvor says those who rely on tips could be left in a pinch.

“A few will have a very difficult time getting by,” she says. “I’m hoping landlords are going to be lenient during this time, because there are going to be a lot of people who aren’t going to make their rent.”

Anderson spent his last shift cleaning up the kitchen, and putting food into the freezer. Supplies that can’t be frozen are going to Main Street Project. Local chef Ben Kramer has been driving around Winnipeg, collecting from about 20 restaurants.

Chef Ben Kramer is collecting food from restaurants that have now closed down, to bring to them to Main Street Project so they can be used by people in need. (Walther Vernal (CBC))

“Even if it’s a couple weeks, prepared foods, processed foods, stuff like that is not going to keep,” Kramer says. “So rather than throw it in the landfill, let’s give it to people that need it.”    

He says the outpouring of donations has been heartwarming, but bittersweet. Many restaurants, including Tallest Poppy, aren’t sure they’ll have the means to reopen after the crisis. Even Kramer’s own catering business, Fun Events Only Dot Com, is struggling.

“We’ve had every event for the past two months cancel on use,” he says. “We have zero revenue right now, so we’re just doing our best to keep busy.”

Business continues at Bernstein’s Deli in River Heights, thanks to the restaurant’s retail shop, which sells cold cuts and baked goods. But owner Aaron Bernstein says Ottawa will have to work to keep restaurateurs afloat.

“There has to be government intervention,” says Bernstein. “Someone I know says they’re closing two restaurants and only reopening one. That’s really sad to hear.”

He’s calling on government to help restaurant owners get up and running again after the outbreak. Bernstein says measures such as rent relief make a big difference for eateries, surviving on small profit margins.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says a financial support package is on the way, to help Canadians and businesses get through the COVID-19 crisis. He says a major announcement is coming Wednesday.

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