By Friday, most of Ontario will be in Stage 3 of the province’s COVID-19 recovery plan which includes indoor dining at restaurants. But according to industry experts, that experience may be forever changed.

According to Mike von Massow, a food economist and associate professor at the University of Guelph, higher prices, less staff and fundamental changes to the reservation system will become features of dining out. With lower capacity due to physical distancing requirements and higher costs related to increased cleaning and sanitation, he says these moves are a matter of survival.

A survey this month by Restaurants Canada shows the majority of foodservice businesses across the country are still operating at a loss. Fifty-six per cent of respondents said it would take a year or more to return to profitability and more than 90 per cent report lower sales than this time last year.

Von Massow says prices need to increase, though customers will have some choice on how much more they’re willing to pay, much like purchases in the airline and hotel industry.

“We’ll see things like dynamic pricing or revenue management where pricing varies by day of week. More people want to go out on Fridays than Tuesdays and I’ve been to restaurants where you can get the exact same thing cheaper on a Tuesday than on a Friday night,” he said in an interview.

Another of von Massow’s predictions is a reservation system that is akin to buying a ticket for an event, with a penalty for no-shows to allow restaurants to insure themselves against lost revenue. He says it's similar to purchasing a ticket to a sporting event or concert in advance. If you're unable to make it, you can either gift or sell your reservation to someone else, or eat the cost.

“I expect restaurants to say that if you’re booking a table, you’ll be charged 50 per cent of the cost of a normal meal which will be credited to your account when you come and eat,” von Massow said.

According to the Restaurants Canada survey, 75 per cent of restaurant operators said they were receiving the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which has been extended until December, to keep staff on payroll.

Labour is among the biggest costs for restaurants and according to von Massow, staffing will have to change. “Ipads for ordering at fast casual, kiosks at quick-service restaurants — every manner of replacing people with technology either on the production side or the service side. [There will be] innovation to achieve labour savings,” he said. 

For fine dining establishments, that means fewer managers and more fluidity between front-of-house and back-of-house staff who had previously been relegated to behind the scenes.

The lockdown forced Jonathan Bauer, the co-owner of Pompette, a Toronto restaurant that opened for the first time during the pandemic, to turn his eatery’s business model on its head. That started with takeout-only in late May before opening the patio on June 26. Bauer says that even though the restaurant is only allowed to operate at half of its potential capacity, with seating for 45 on the patio and 20 indoors as of Friday, the move to Stage 3 is welcome.

“It’s a good step for the vibe and the feeling of the restaurant, plus our bartender won’t be so lonely by himself at the bar,” he said in an interview. Bauer is wearing many hats — in addition to his sommelier duties, he greets, seats and serves guests. Fortunately, he has a good working relationship with chef Martine, who is his co-owner and wife.

He considers it lucky timing to be opening in the midst of the pandemic, while they still have a cash cushion for extra expenses such as the plexiglass barriers separating some of their interior tables. Bauer said Pompette’s financial situation would be very different if the lockdown had struck one year after opening.

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Seigo Nakamura is the founder and CEO of Aburi Restaurants Canada, which includes Aburi Hana in Toronto’s Yorkville area and Miku on Bay Street (Photo supplied)

Seigo Nakamura is the founder and CEO of Aburi Restaurants Canada, which owns six eateries in Vancouver and Ontario, including Aburi Hana in the posh Yorkville neighbourhood, and Miku on Bay Street. In an email, he said Aburi is mindful of maintaining an “elevated dining experience” and many of his company’s recent changes are here to stay.

“We’ve streamlined the menus—the number of items has been reduced and we’ve redesigned offerings to minimize the time and number of cooks and chefs required to handle each dish,” Nakamura said. “We’ve also implemented new technology so guests can pay for their takeout ahead of time and are using QR codes to eliminate physical menus, although we do have disposable ones on hand if needed.”

Aburi has reduced staff during the pandemic and Nakamura said more will be returning during Stage 3. Key roles have expanded, including the director of marketing, who is now entrenched in the operations side of the business.

"The silver lining in all of this is that we have had to embrace new processes and technologies in order to survive," said Nakamura. "We can see that some of these changes are mutually beneficial to the business and our guests regardless of whether we are in a pandemic climate or not."