Patio season on the way as Manitoba restaurants hustle to get ready for physically distanced opening

By | April 29, 2020

Winnipeg restaurant owners are looking forward to a patio season that is perhaps more anxiously anticipated than any other they’ve experienced.

As of Monday, customers can sit down at a restaurant — provided they’re outside — for the first time in more than a month, as the province loosens restrictions on the non-essential businesses forced to close during a global pandemic.

Properly distanced customers can be seated on patios starting Monday, but indoor dining rooms must remain closed for now. The province will still permit takeout and delivery services.

Jay Kilgour, who runs the two Fionn MacCool’s locations in Winnipeg, said his customers didn’t waste any time when they heard the news Wednesday morning.

“I started getting a bunch of text messages. I pulled over and it was friends excited about patio weather,” he said.

“Some people were asking already if they could have a reservation.”

Patios at half capacity

Only moments earlier, Premier Brian Pallister announced restaurants will be allowed to open their patios beginning May 4, as part of a multi-phase plan to reopen businesses and service providers.

Restaurants still face a number of restrictions, though, including a requirement that they operate at no more than half their normal capacity.

Restaurants with an outdoor terrace scrambled immediately to make sense of the new rules and, if possible, begin preparing for an influx of sun-starved but physically distanced diners.

Within the hour, Kilgour called one of his employees into work to scrub the floors and dust off the patio furniture. 

Fionn MacCool’s franchisee Jay Kilgour surveys his patio, which he’s preparing for a May 4 reopening. (Ian Froese/CBC)

It will be tougher to make money with half as many seats, Kilgour said, but he won’t squander the chance.

“I owe it to the staff that we have that are laid off right now to make sure they have a job to come back to,” he said.

“So as long as they’re putting this in place for us to capture a little bit of revenue, that’ll go towards the common goal of getting back open, then I owe it to everybody to try.”

Among the other rules for restaurants are a requirement to clean tables and chairs between customers.

Buffets and drink refills aren’t allowed, and anything on tables — such as napkin dispensers or condiments — must also sanitized between customers.

Customers will also have to be seated at least two metres apart, except for “brief exchanges,” the rules say.

WATCH | Restaurants prepare for gradual reopening

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister announced restaurant patios would be allowed to reopen on May 4 under strict guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19. 1:24

Restaurant dining rooms will be allowed to reopen — at a maximum 50 per cent capacity — under Phase 2 of the province’s plan, but that won’t happen before June 1. And provincial officials warned plans may change if there’s an unexpected rise in COVID-19 cases.

Rhea Collison, managing partner at Bar Italia on Corydon Avenue, was a tad surprised to hear Wednesday that patios can reopen in under a week.

She heard provincial officials repeatedly say the economy would reopen slowly and cautiously. 

“Inside, I’m the most excited that you can imagine,” Collison said.

“My staff is excited and I know my customers are. We’ve had tons of texts and messages on Instagram, people are really excited to be able to come down and be outside.”

Her establishment thrives on sunny weather, whether it’s the crowds that pack her patio on warm summer nights or those coming to her recently opened takeout window — which was previously a patio door.

Bar Italia owner Rhea Collison says she’s overjoyed to be able to reopen her patio on Monday, even if the number of seats is cut in half. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

She was trying to ramp up business before she’s allowed to welcome customers back inside.

“Beggars can’t be choosers right now,” she said. “We’re happy to have anything in terms of an outdoor business.”

In fortuitious timing, Collison found out Wednesday her patio railings, which she sent off for repairs two months ago, are ready for use. She’ll have those in place by Monday, she said. 

Bobby Mottola cannot help but feel optimistic by the province’s plans.

“When we talk about the patio opening up, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel; it’s exciting,” said Mottola, who runs a number of restaurants under the Academy Hospitality banner, including the Merchant Kitchen and Pizzeria Gusto.

“And at the same time, it makes us look internally to make sure that we’re going to take the right steps to ensure [the] health and safety of our guests and … the health and safety of our staff as well.”

He figures a number of restaurants won’t open their patios for May 4  — the start of patio season often coincides with the May long weekend.

But even still, he said the reintroduction of outside dining, along with takeout and curbside pickup, will inspire confidence in those customers reluctant to gather for a meal. 

Staff ‘over the moon’

Restaurants will have to cope with a new normal regardless, said Joel Boulet, owner of Cafe Carlo. Fewer customers will mean less work for his staff.

“Is that going to be enough for them to want to continue to work?” he asked.

He started curbside pickup last weekend and said his staff are “over the moon to have something to do.” Customers have signed up in droves. 

“Maybe we don’t make money for the first little while, but if we’re breaking even and with an eye for the future, certainly we’d be quite happy with that.”

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