How three Kingston restaurants are weathering COVID-19

By Jordan Whitehouse

It’s no secret that Kingston’s identity is closely tied to its vibrant food scene and the people behind it.

When taken together with the accommodation sector, 8.7% of jobs in this city are in accommodation or food services. That’s the fourth highest percentage of any city in Canada, trailing only St. Catharines-Niagara, Kelowna, and Victoria.      

But it’s not just the numbers of people employed in restaurants, bars, and cafés that makes the food scene what it is here. It’s their passion, says Kingston Food Tours’ Heather Ford. “I was blown away when I approached these industry leaders to be involved in our first tour,” she says. “Their enthusiasm energized me and propelled the business forward.”  

So when COVID-19 arrived and restaurants and related businesses like Kingston Food Tours had to closeit hit this city particularly hard. Suddenly thousands of people in the sector were without work and restaurants with little to no experience with takeout or delivery or online ordering had to learn fast. And they have.      

As Olivea owner Stev George put it recently: “It’s a very difficult time, but we’re resilient people and we think outside the box and we come up with new ideas. So we’re trying.” 

Here’s how he and Olivea are trying, along with Mesa Fresca owner Andrew Scahill and Bella Bistro owner Paul Muller. (Note: interviews were edited for length and clarity.)  

Though this interview features three restaurants, we encourage you to check out our extensive list of Kingston businesses and restaurants offering services during COVID-19.

Stev George, Olivea

Besides a closed dining room, what are the biggest challenges you’re facing right now?

The biggest challenge has just been dealing with how my laid off employees are going to deal with this. Most of my people live paycheque to paycheque, so when they don’t get a paycheque, it means they can’t buy food or they can’t pay their rent or they can’t do anything. So we’re trying to help them navigate the supports that are there  EI, the CERB, the gift cards to No Frills 

How have you been handling the switch to a takeout and delivery model?

We weren’t doing any delivery before, and the only takeout we did was while we were open and in the middle of service, which sometimes wasn’t that convenient to do. But now that’s all we’re doing. It’s welcome for sure. It’s like opening a whole new business. We have the bones — the stoves and fridges and ingredients — but we’re making completely different food.  

So what are you making?

So we send out deliveries at 2 pm, but it’s nothing hot. The hot food starts at 4 pm and people have to come and pick it up. The cold food [which can also be picked up] is different things from the pantry—frozen soups, lasagnas, shepherd’s pie, butter chicken, which is my own special recipe, etc. We also started doing survival kits because I had all these lovely things like Mennonite eggs and patchwork carrots and all organic and celery root and onions and all these cured meats like fennel salami and northern Italian from Seed to Sausage. For takeout, we’ve got most of our dinner menu.    

What are your thoughts on your future?

I don’t have high hopes that it’s going to come back to normal any time soon. I think it’s going to be more than a year before we can have a full restaurant again, and I think what’s going to happen is they are going to tell us to have 50% seating or two metres between the tables or something like that. And honestly, we won’t be able to sustain the business as it was like that. We’ll have to either raise our prices or change the menu so that it can be done with fewer staff.   

Hot takeout available Tuesday to Saturday, 4 pm to 8 pm 
Pantry meals available for takeout Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 8 pm 
Pantry meals available for same-day delivery Tuesday to Saturday if ordered by 1 pm 
613-547-5483, ext. 1 

Andrew Scahill, Mesa Fresca

I know delivery is new for you. How has it been going?

I don’t know if people are aware of some of the corporate delivery services, who charge everywhere between 28% and 34% off the top just to provide those services. As a new business, it’s tough to absorb those kinds of margins. And food is meant to be eaten as fresh from the kitchen to the table as it possibly can, so there are challenges involved with trying to find the right menu items that are going to travel well and to try to find out how logistically we can make this happen. So I became the new delivery driver, Alison [Scahill] and Mitch [Leger] are in the kitchen, and we keep one or two staff around to answer the phone and to help out with deliveries  

Has it been tough to source food during the pandemic?     

The supply chain starts to dwindle and there is a little bit of pressure and stress on that. As you see in the grocery stores, it’s tough to keep things in stock. And that’s the new reality right now. Nobody knows how long this is going to last, so it’s tough to bring stuff in that you don’t want to sit on. We’ve had a couple of local suppliers that have been absolute gems to us — people like Pig & Olive, Quattrocchi’sDeodato’s. Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to continue doing this.  

Tell us about the Kingston Small Business Initiative that you came up with?

So we’re taking certain parts of our revenues and re-investing them into smaller businesses much like ours that can’t operateSo buying gift certificates, products, whatever we can to help support businesses on a daily basis. We just need to be a part of the community and that was very important to us  

What are you looking forward to most when things get back to “normal”?

One of the biggest things is to have our staff back. They’re like family to us. We miss them dearly, we know how hard it is on them right now, and we’re just hoping that we get through this as quick as possible so that we can get them back here. We have one of the best staffs in town, and we can’t wait to have them back. And of course, our customers, we can’t wait to have our customers back and have these tables full of life, music on, serving up some of our margaritas and food 

Takeout and delivery available Tuesday to Saturday, 4 pm to 8 pm 

Paul Muller, Bella Bistro

What are the biggest challenges you’re facing right now?

Initially, we did deliveries, but that got to be too much. But our friend Matt Day set us up with a friend who had set up his online store through Shopify. And that’s really helped. Initially, we were trying to do all payment over the phone manually, taking credit cards, and you can imagine the gong show of just how much time it takes to do that. We also still have a bunch of debt from before, bills that had to be paid, and then all of a sudden your income drops at least 75%. Our landlord has begrudgingly deferred this month, but I don’t know what’ll happen next month. So we’re kind of dealing with it day by day.     

Have you been getting lots of support from customers?

The customers have been great. All of our regulars have come back, so it’s been really encouraging on that front. People are really helping us out and shouting us out online through social media and stuff, which is really helpful. My wife is really good at that — she’s managed to market us well on Facebook and Instagram — and that really, really helps.   

What are you offering for takeout right now?

We have a selection of four or five of our standard pizzas, and then we also have frozen pizzas through the market.  And the menu changes week to week. We’re picking through our standards — Thai curry chicken, chicken parm, local pork ribs, and then some different curries, butter chicken. And I used to be the head baker at Pan Chancho, so I’m baking bread — sourdoughs and baguettes. And as far as the online shop goes, we have frozen soups and frozen entrees that people can take home and warm up.    

Has this slowdown made you re-think any of your operations?

We’re definitely going to change our scope a little bit when things get back to normal. I think we had too much going on, so I think we’re going to simplify the menu and try not to be so broad and cater to everybody’s whim. I’m done with that. I think we have to just pare it down and hope that people go with us.  

Bella Market products available for pickup Thursday, 3 pm to 5 pm, and Friday and Saturday, 2 pm to 7 pm 

Hot takeout food available Friday and Saturday, 2 pm to 7 pm 
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