Realities

When the first lockdown happened, we thought it was going to be a couple of weeks long, and after a couple of weeks, we thought it was going to be a month, and after that month? We were poised to open after Canada Day as we thought the government would not want too many people celebrating that weekend! As it turned out, June 12th was the day that patios became a viable option for us.

The difficulty in closing was three-fold. One, the biggest, the 32 staff of The Mo. What would become of them? ROEs were immediate so they could apply for EI, and CERB was announced very quickly so I felt much better. I also let them know that no matter what, we would be one of the survivors and that there were jobs on the other side of this. The second concern was what to do with all of the prepped food?! St Patrick’s Day was the next day, usually, our busiest day of the year! So, fish was thawed, extra beer was brought in, burgers galore! We were so ready for a good day! So, most of the fresh food went home with staff. The stuff that we thought would last two weeks? We saved of course and then when the two weeks were up, we gave away more, and then we started having to throw stuff away. At least the alcohol was good! The third consideration…what about our patrons?! Would we lose people if we did not do take-out? Could we figure out a way to offer up what they needed? And besides toilet paper, what did they need?

I often say that managing a restaurant is about putting out fires (not often real fires but every so often, those too!), that all we do is manage crises, from the unhappy table that ordered salmon but got trout (even though there is no trout in house) to filling in for the dishwasher that decided not to come in, to the ice machine not working to the internet crashing during dinner service…every day, something happens that needs to be fixed- or solved. At first, COVID was another problem that just needed to be solved. For me, it is about pride in my management abilities and my logical brain…it is what I have spent my 10,000 hours doing, I am an expert! haha. So, just another problem to be solved.

The Morrissey House had actually been sold in February, and after two delays, the deal was supposed to close on March 23rd. On the 18th, the buyers decided they needed more time, so we were doubling down on crisis management! As the deal was closing in the 23rd, I decided that as I only had 6 days until retirement, I could wait for the new owners to begin their take-out/delivery program…and when that deadline passed and talks of litigation began, I thought we would still be back within a couple of weeks and instead of offering take-out, I could just take the time to do some work that is really hard to do while open seven days a week! So I started painting, then as the weeks stretched, refinishing tables, the bar top, steam cleaning, deep cleaning, tearing apart our walk-in fridge, cleaning out extra equipment and sundries in our basement, and generally, trying to catch my breath after a whirlwind year of having a part-time job on top of full-time ownership- and no, I was not working anywhere, that part-time job was trying to sell the restaurant!

While the renovating and breathing was taking place, there was also a lot of reading- mainly about the doomsday scenario of an entire industry going up in flames. I follow a few accounts on Twitter, such as Bon Appetit and Food&Wine that had an ongoing series of articles about the industry, albeit from an American perspective. Once the bankruptcies started, I started overthinking what was happening to the restaurant industry, it was a sobering reality, but it was also depressing to see how much doom and gloom was spreading through the people that built this industry. I know our government programs were better than what was being offered in the US and I am so grateful that the staff of The Morrissey was well taken care of in those months, and all the way into September as we were still not back to full speed (and probably will not be until mid-summer 2021 I imagine…which of course depends on you!). I am also grateful to my landlord who did apply on our behalf to the rent relief program.

That crisis management was evident in the way restaurants pivoted to meal kits, expanded patios, delivery services, groceries, take-out alcohol, selling puzzles and merchandise, GoFundMe pages, redesigns of their entire business model, and more. I said at the beginning that the industry has been through so much since 1765 and that we would conquer this as well. We made it through prohibition, made it through societal changes like smoking laws. We made it through the energy crisis and we will make it through this as well. And then one day in May I read an article about a chef in South Korea. He talked about his Seoul restaurant reopening (and his one in Vietnam as well, but not the ones in the States…worldwide chef) and how he was surprised that at even 50% capacity, his restaurants were as busy as he every was due to a few factors- one, reservations became more spread out- instead of people dining only between 530 and 7, he was able to fill seats at 4pm and 8, 9, 10…people were taking what they could get and changing the landscape of the Seoul dining experience. Another large factor for him was that Seoulites were actually booking his space as well which had largely been taken up by tourists previously. Apparently, with partial lockdowns still in place, the people of Seoul began exploring their city like they had not previously. This was so different than the messages that were out there about the demise of the industry, and while I knew we would be different in Canada, it was still difficult reading all of those articles and not coming away with a negative spin on life in the industry. I knew The Morrissey was different as we are primarily a local, and I knew, once we opened, the locals would be back…perhaps not in droves, but those that were able to feel safe would be back, and we could wait for the others.

I read a great quote this weekend by Louisville chef Eddie Lee “but at the end of the day, it feels like I am on the Titanic trying to throw out buckets of water to stay afloat,” and another from an Instagram post from a Toronto restaurateur, “we have shut down, reopened as a general store, takeout, built a patio, opened a curbside patio, reopened on the inside for about 5 days, scrambled to find Mas2on jars and patio furniture, shut down the inside again, searched the world for patio heaters, closed the patio, reopened as a wine shop and take out again, and we are finishing off with our gift baskets…all in 9 months.” No matter how much extra space we were able to use this summer for patios, no matter how many Thanksgiving side dishes we could sell, or Instagram likes we receive, here are some of our realities in number form…

staff...32 down to 24, and now 22, but in order for us to have that many people working, some schedules have been cut in half, or as you see in the next paragraph, hours have been cut in half.

number of hours open….85 pre-Covid down to 44 in the summer, then 18 in the fall, and now 9 for takeout.

sales…summer months, approximately 55% of sales from last year, October 45%, November a little less than that. As an example, last November, just over 133000 gross sales. This November, even with that super nice week of weather, $48000. Reality. December will be about 35%- as busy as we felt we were with full houses of 10 diners. 🙂 Gulp!!

guests…July 2019- 6200+ guests…July 2020- as busy as you saw that we were! 3200+ guests…fast forward to November…5300 to 1875 guests. We are averaging about $2 more per guest though so that helps- thanks for upgrading your fries and adding a scone to-go! 🙂

payroll…as the government is helping with wages, we have tried to make sure that people still have enough hours so payroll is running heavy at the moment (between 65 and 75%); prep still needs to happen if we are open or closed, dishes still need to get washed, and salaries are still being paid in full…I even went back on the payroll in October…but went off again in December as we have three holiday pays coming up, which usually costs us (as small as we are) an extra $1500 each, pre-covid, now perhaps $1000 each, so monies will need to be saved! The CEWS being offered has definitely meant a world of difference to our staff and the way we schedule. Without it, we would not be open Friday lunches or Sunday nights. Staff would be working once or twice a week, we would have gone from about 35 dishwashing hours in a week to having no dishwashers employed and making kitchen and wait staff jump in when necessary…and I am also sure that it would have meant Karen and me, as salaried employees, in pretty much every day!

rent…no change in the dollar value, but again, my landlord did apply for and extend the relief to us. I know a lot of restaurants, especially in Toronto, did not have this advantage. It surprised me…I know landlords took a 25% hit, and that some were wary of the information they had to share with the government when they applied, but it was still a surprise as I wondered what the landlords planned to do with empty spaces once rent was defaulted upon? If they had a good tenant, why would they not want to offer help? Now we have CERS and while the percentage is smaller than the original program, and the money varies depending upon the decrease in business, it will still, in our case, save us about $2000-$3000 per month. I am also very happy that we are in London! My rent seems to be about a third of what I see Toronto restaurants pay and it makes sense to me now why so many have closed!

monthly utilities...we still have cable, still run the internet, still have a business phone and as the kitchen gear is on for almost as many hours as are all of our fridges etc, our hydro bills show about a $200-300/mo difference. Security, hood cleaning, grease trap cleaning, insurance, pest control, linen services, all the same costs if we are selling 10000 or 100000. We have done a great job trying to cut down on food costs though!

But here is the thing, pretty much every restaurant is going to have to go further into debt in order to make it to the other side of this. I have a feeling that there are a lot of owners who will not want to go into past profits or their own savings to make sure they do get to the other side, and that it would be easier to not go into debt/go into savings and just close, especially those places with less than ideal rents, think Toronto here! There is absolutely nothing wrong with this of course! Families need to be supported, mortgages need to be paid, careers can be changed. We did ask for and receive, the $60000 loan that the government was offering- which needs to be repaid by December of 2022. It truly feels, after 11 years of being in business, that we are starting all over again; the debt, building menus, building a customer base, and figuring out the day to day operations and staffing.

It is such a strange time as someone who has managed a restaurant or bar for over 30 years, we rely so much upon past performance- we see patterns in our year to year sales and know need to order or how we need to staff. Right now, there is no way we can predict what a day is going to be like, we could have a Friday day that we sell $2500, and follow that up with a day of $500. We can panic when someone calls in sick, make all of the necessary calls, change our own schedule because no one could help on that day, and then, by 12:15, know that that $1000 Friday is actually only going to be a $300 day over the course of 4 hours and we did not need that extra staff…(pre-COVID, a Friday lunch service was consistently $1600-$2000 as a comparison). It makes it difficult when you have a day that you know it would have been cheaper to stay in bed and not open than to put in 10 hours and wonder where everyone was?! I once read about how serving was one of the most stressful jobs in the world due to the unknown- that you could be running your a$$ off for two hours and then nothing for another two and surprise, 20 teachers show up for drinks after school and you are now by yourself! Highs and lows daily, but surprising highs and lows…

So what about COVID itself? For those of you that follow me on Twitter, I think you can appreciate my understanding of what has been happening. I knew we would be going into lockdown at Christmas, we even started running down our draught lines. I am a fan of lockdowns (when run properly- which I do not think we have done in Ontario) as I have seen how they have worked for friends who live in Melbourne and Sydney who are now pretty much living normal lives as they wait for the vaccine to be delivered. This circuit breaker should have begun earlier, we could have even been better off with an October shutdown, but with the vaccine arriving in short order, this is our best chance to limit deaths and hospitalizations before we get to the mass vaccination portion of 2021. I also feel like restaurants have not been the issue. They can throw out as many theoretical explanations of an Agatha Christie-like locked room mystery with no ventilation and people without masks as they want, but the numbers are not there to support their supposition. They came up with arbitrary capacity rules; first, it was half capacity, then 50 people spaced, then 10 spaced…without knowing what a building looked like (for example, we are in an old house with 6 distinct rooms plus a hallway, with great ventilation, while others are monolithic rectangles and squares, and others are tiny with only a front door for ventilation- and some open up into malls, haha, and yet the same rules applied). I feel very strongly that we as an industry have been vilified for little to no reason, as we often are (see: smoking bylaws). We know Amazon workers have gotten sick, Walmart, hospitals, grocery stores…but restaurant workers? We have been back since June, talking to unmasked patrons every day and I do not think we have seen, for as many workers as we have in the industry, a plethora of cases. As we have been contact tracing since June, one of the only industries to do so, it is easy to point to us as a place where someone has been. There was a study done in September by the CDC in the US that had 42% of positive people (from a sample size of 6 counties, 314 patients) had been to a restaurant in the previous two weeks, vs 14% of the control group- although they did not differentiate what kind of restaurant, ie quick service, fast-casual, casual, fine, nor did they mention if everyone had been to a Walgreens, nor did they mention that 75% of Americans are in restaurants monthly….of course people had been in restaurants, it is what people do! And of course, we also have seen what the southern USA has been like with respect to covid.

To the point of this post! Haha…I do tend to ramble. We are going to open December 29, 30, and 31, 5pm until 8pm for take-out only. We have decided that we will not be opening in January but will reevaluate week to week once we hit the 23rd. When we have diners, take-out is viable- even 10 diners at a time or 20 per night, it helps us prep food…it means that we know we are going to have 20 people to cook for as an absolute, not having that, and waiting by a phone, no matter how supportive you are, is gut-wrenching and we have no idea, even with a limited menu, if we should make food or not. 🙂

I said in March that I did not think our food was about travel, I did not mean our food did not travel well, I meant that the industry as a whole is meant to be an escape…an escape from your day to day, the stresses of your life. The very word is derived from the French ‘to restore, to revive, or that which restores.’ It is an opportunity to be social- even if you are a table for two, when the restaurant is hopping, you feel the energy and you are a part of something bigger than you, it’s a happening, an experience. Some of my favourite moments are walking into a restaurant and hearing the hub-bub, knowing that people are celebrating life moments, that the music is just right, that the staff is buzzing, that the kitchen is in a zone (that you don’t have to clean your own dishes!). That is what restaurants are about, that is the magic of a restaurant, it is a craft. For me, take-out, as delicious as we can make it, does not compare. The Morrissey House is about laughter and life. It is about conversation and comfort. Take-out, while it definitely helps pay the utilities, does not compare. Our restaurant is not about the food, nor drink, it is about the community. I think the staff has done an amazing job pivoting and being resilient. I think our patrons have been brilliant and supportive- from buying take-out to dining in, sauces to hoodies, online puzzles to gift cards, we recognize that you have been there for us!! We cannot thank you enough.

(An addendum to the original post…for those wondering, yes, delivery apps might make a difference in sales. But everything is timed in a restaurant which is why sometimes you call for a 6pm reservation and we say we cannot do 6, but we can do 6:15 (and you think, how could that matter!). It matters as we can only cook so much food at a time, or a server can only talk to so many people at a time. With the style of cooking that we do, delivery apps would be a difficult pivot for us- and our food would suffer, not only in the making of, but in the delivery as well as I would hate to see a piece of fish being delivered 30 minutes after it is cooked! I know you have all read about the costs involved as well- from initiation fees (mostly waived now) to the 30% of Uber (3 months free right now) etc- but for us, it is about the control of our food. We know when we bring it to your table that we can fix an issue in the immediate, but with takeout, we lose that control. I know I have control of the staff of The Mo, but I know I do not have control of the drivers delivering food- as great as they may be, they are not of ‘us’ so to speak and cannot care as much as we do. Until we come up with our own way of delivery, on a cargo bike within a mile radius preferably, this is the way we need to go).

For now, three more nights of service, then we will close until January 23rd…and then see if we are close to the end of the lockdown or if that will be extended. We hope to have you dining with us shortly and man, can we not wait for patio season again!

An addendum on January 15 2021…if you have made it this far and want to hear from real people out there, this link is one that lets you know how people in the industry are feeling.

8 thoughts on “Realities

  1. My heart bleeds for you and the other privately owned restaurants/ businesses. I too haven’t see any numbers supporting virus transmission in London’s restaurants!

    • Thank you Sharon! We’re fine, and optimistic, and can’t wait for summer, I hope that came across in the post! I know I have had some restaurateurs reach out talking about their struggles, I do hope that customers reach out to them as well! And politicians of course, I hope they understand more about the reality of the situation. Thank you for your comment and concern!

  2. great Note Mark, thanks and good luck in whatever hell is sent your way next. see you at the other end!! Glenn

  3. Thank you for sharing all this. I have lots of good memories at The Mo, eating with a large group of friends or with my better-half, even with the physically-distanced tables. I always bike there and I’d love to see bike deliveries. Another interesting idea could be converting it into a worker-coop. It could actually increase job stability and business resilience. Would you consider the option?

    • We have thought about the bike deliveries (London Bicycle Cafe had a demo on sale this past spring and I almost bought it- and now they are letting people know about a Downtown London grant that is available that would suit a cargo bike purchase as well)…a good idea, but I am not sure we are built for take-out/deliveries (which as mentioned, is why we are closed right now). That is a big pivot for us, and once we are back to ‘normal,’ whatever normal means, our kitchen is too small to be able to take care of the seating that we already have let alone adding on more sales…not out of the realm of possibilities, but it is not a pressing issue at the moment.

      As for the co-op, no, there has been no thought of that. I am not sure how that might help with the resilience of the business though? I know it works at The Root Cellar, (and know that it has not worked at other restaurants- a difficult biz to make that happen and all the kudos to top those that do make it work). We are almost 12 years into our run and I think it has worked pretty well thus far. I know my key people have had no interest in any other responsibilities than they currently have which would make a conversion difficult. (I did see your email just now as well as I am just checking on things once a week while we are closed for the lockdown).

      Thanks for the comment and for allowing The Mo to create some memories for you!

  4. I understand how deliveries can be tricky for you guys. And implementing an employee ownership model really requires buy-in from employees. One of the reasons it might help with resilience is that when everybody is an owner the decisions around lay-offs, cost reductions, pivots closures etc… are made collectively and tend to be more flexible, don’t have the pressure on the single owner and allow for better workplace morale. Of course, I am speaking in general, based on testimonials and national surveys from the US. I have no idea about how internal operations at The Mo work. Anyway, I hope that soon we will be able to enjoy again the food and ambiance at The Morrisey House.

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