Toronto’s restaurants and those employed in the industry have faced more than their fair share of personal and professional challenges in the past twenty-two months. The anchor city one of is in the most locked-down province in the country. Ontario also has some of the most prohibitive regulations and rules for reopening that change weekly, making it hard to keep a stiff upper lip these days.

Supporting those special occasion spots, that local bakery or your favourite takeout spot has been crucial during this pandemic. While the forecast with COVID is murky, we’re hopeful for a horizon filled with elbow-to-elbow diners. We dream of patios brimming with people and not heat lamps, and this whole terrible time to be over and done with once and for all.

I caught up with a few industry insiders for a digital roundtable. Chef Rosie Keshishian of Oliver & Bonacini’s Babel, Owner of Gia and Stefano’s Sandwiches Jennifer Coburn and President and CEO of Liberty Entertainment Group Nick di Donato, joined in.

babel restaurant
Babel’s Chicken Shawarma

What’s keeping you going during this last lockdown?

Rosie- During this lockdown, I have taken the opportunity to improve my skills, changing my tastebuds with new dishes. Getting creative in the kitchen and exploring new dishes. I’m grateful to have my passion to keep me going during this lockdown.

Jennifer- I asked my back of house team members what they wanted to do with this latest lockdown, they all told me they wanted to continue to persevere. We spent the summer building a great mission-driven, cohesive team, and I don’t ever want to lose that. We have been offering plant-forward conscious dining options to a new group of diners and this is something we are very passionate about.

Pivoting to take out was something we were challenged by but it gave us time to really focus on offering affordable, accessible food that everyone would enjoy. The shoutout from Dan Levy on social media was a nice touch too!

Nick- Based on how people generally reacted after the previous lockdown, I’m convinced we will be back stronger than ever. Once we were able to open post-lockdown, the community came out in huge numbers to support the hospitality industry and were spending more money, more often. 

I’m optimistic that given LEG has been successful in adapting our businesses to meet the needs of our valued customers and guests, we can remain strong and committed to offering the very best experiences in hospitality at all of our venues, properties and restaurants in the future.

How do you continually keep pivoting, especially considering the last-minute nature of this last lockdown?

Rosie- I have been trying to focus on the positive, realizing how much my family, friends and team support me, and how much I value them. Quitting something I am passionate about has never been in my plan even a worldwide pandemic cannot change my mind about it. Yes, it is unfair we are all now chained to our home kitchen however that has its own beauty and nostalgia. Getting creative with my children has been a great experience this pandemic provided me.

Jennifer- First of all it’s survival. The government does not offer wage and rent subsidies to new businesses and the $10,000 grant portal isn’t even open yet. We knew that Gia had something that other restaurants didn’t offer. We combined Stefano’s plant-based Sandwiches, comfort foods like lasagna, agnolotti and a line of cold-pressed juices & mylks with affordable wine and cocktails- basically something for everyone that was willing to eat vegetarian or vegan food. 

Pre-lockdown we were quite busy and a number of people wanted takeout but with a small kitchen and high volume dining, it wasn’t possible. We signed up with UberEats, Skip the Dishes, used our online tool Ambassador for pick up and delivery and employed staff to deliver dinners for two up to 10km through Tock– yet another third-party site.

Nick- Liberty Entertainment Group is now adept at pivoting and figuring out ways to survive and emerge from these lockdowns with as little impact as possible. Some things are easier now as we understand the take out and delivery game much better. We don’t have to create new menus, items for takeout, or packaging. We know what works.

We have now determined which patio is best suited for winter use  — the patio at BlueBlood in Casa Loma is a perfect example of making the impossible work. Nestled in the arms of Casa Loma and shielded from elements as much as possible by the majestic castle, the tented and heated patio we’ve created is magical. Referred to as “the best-heated patio in the city,” our guests are appreciative of the opportunity to dine out. Literally, dine out!

What are you most looking forward to once we’re back to business?

Rosie- Firstly seeing everyone’s healthy and well. I think this unwanted vacation will give everyone a mental break, ushering in new, bright and creative ideas, in a way a fresh start for our restaurant. The team has become a family and of course, I am excited to see and work with them again.

Jennifer- We can’t wait to welcome back diners to experience our food in a setting that is welcome and positive, helping the community navigate to a path to normalcy. As restaurateurs we thrive on the rush and the vibe of a busy restaurant, we miss the customer interaction and the look of someone enjoying their first taste or sip.

I found this quote “I think people will be inching closer and closer together”, people want to sit at a bar and have a drink. I think that in general, human beings want to be near other human beings, really closely. I think the year is going to see a very slow moment of tables getting closer and closer. That’s what I really want to see. 

Nick- We are most looking forward to receiving guests again at Don Alfonso 1890 in Casa Loma, named the World’s Best Italian Restaurant (outside of Italy). We received the award from one of the world’s most prestigious rating guides, 50 Top Italy, on January 2 at a live broadcast from Italy. Then the lockdown! Personally, I am also looking forward to getting through the pandemic and never having to do this again — but most important, bringing back our entire team to do what we love doing, serving our valued customers. 

stefanos sandwiches-chicken
Stefano’s Sandwiches Vegan Fried Chicken Sandwich

What do you see happening in the industry in the long run?

Rosie- This industry is timeless and needed. In my opinion if hopefully, all this chaos has calmed down our business will most certainly do amazing, this industry is very important and our restaurants have a big potential especially the newly built and upcoming concepts. Brilliant chefs, hardworking and dedicated teams, I cannot see anything but a bright light at the end of this tunnel.

Jennifer- I think the road to recovery is going to be quite long and unfortunately, a lot of restaurants are not going to survive the latest lockdown. Takeout and delivery will continue to be a part of every restaurant’s revenue stream. Higher wages, shorter hours and benefits will become the norm in restaurants. The CafeTO program will allow restaurants to recover some of their losses and extending the patios is a must. It has really been the make or break for our industry.

Nick- The Liberty Entertainment Group team is strong and resilient. We will come back and be better than ever. One thing I believe will resonate most from these lockdowns is how important the hospitality industry is to people’s lives. Many have taken it for granted when always available — but I am sure that one thing missed most by people during the lockdown was the ability to meet friends and enjoy a wonderful dinner at their favourite restaurant.

Interviews may be edited for length and/or clarity. All images by Libby Roach.