With patios set to reopen, Toronto restaurateurs worry about staff shortages, high food prices

With patios set to reopen, Toronto restaurateurs worry about staff shortages, high food prices
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Christodoulou, who owns popular Danforth restaurant Soula’s, has been running around, making sure everything’s in tip-top shape, the chairs are arranged, and the food and booze have been ordered ahead of Friday’s reopening.

But as Step 1 of Ontario’s loosening of COVID restrictions begins, his biggest concern has been people; not customers, but staff.

“Honestly, the biggest problem right now is finding enough staff, especially servers and other people in the front of house,” said Christodoulou. “I’m excited we can finally open the patio again and I’m optimistic there will be customers, but it’s not going to solve this industry’s problems. We’ve all been suffering.”

It’s a common refrain from restaurant owners across the city, as patios are allowed to open, giving them a lifeline after being closed on and off for over a year: Customers will come back, but staff shortages, higher prices from produce and meat suppliers, and limited seating means their businesses still won’t be out of the woods for a while. Some have also been struggling to get makeshift patios licensed under the CafeTO program.

Many former restaurant staff have moved into other industries during the pandemic, said Christodoulou.

“My bartender is in construction now, and he isn’t coming back. One of my bussers is doing delivery work,” said Christodoulou.

His meat and produce suppliers have upped their prices, citing shortages as thousands of restaurants across the province gear up to reopen all at once.

“I normally pay $165 for a 55-pound box of chicken breast. Now they want $240. Striploins and rib-eyes are a lot more expensive now too. It’s crazy, but I have to pay it,” said Christodoulou.

Further east along the Danforth at T&M Sidewalk Cafe, owner Enza Ruscillo is concerned about the price of the eggplants needed for her house-made sandwiches.

“I had to pay eight bucks for four eggplants. How much am I going to have to charge for that sandwich? There’s a limit to what people will pay,” said Ruscillo, who’s also frustrated by delays in getting her CafeTO patio expansion approved.

“Right now, I still don’t know if I’ll be able to seat eight people or 20,” said Ruscillo, who was told by city bylaw staff to take down a patio structure she’d built. In exchange, she was told her CafeTO application for a three-table curbside lane patio would be approved. She still hasn’t gotten final word.

The City of Toronto said in a press release Thursday that it has already approved 960 patio applications under the CafeTO program, and that others are still being looked at. Ruscillo is hoping a decision gets made soon.

“I’m out of pocket $7,000 already between the structure, and patio umbrellas,” said Ruscillo.

Luc Lafontaine, owner and brewer at east end brewpub Godspeed, said he would have preferred a bit more time to plan the reopening. He’s been keeping busy putting his latest brews into kegs for his own pub and other restaurant customers, after holding off in case of any last-minute changes to the government’s reopening plan.

“If I filled 50 kegs and then suddenly they changed their minds, it would’ve been a problem. It’s not like I could pour it out into cans afterwards,” said Lafontaine, who doesn’t expect to open his own patio for another week or two.

“I guess I could’ve just thrown a few chairs out onto the patio, but I’d rather do it right,” said Lafontaine.
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