It’s no secret that summer-starved Winnipeggers love dining on a patio, but in the era of COVID-19, the ability to enjoy a meal in the sunshine has gone from seasonal luxury to lifeline for small neighbourhood gems trying to navigate the pandemic.
Thanks to the City of Winnipeg’s expedited temporary patio process, diners may have noticed the proliferation of European-style sidewalk patios at places that never had outdoor spaces before. Scot McTaggart, owner of Fusion Grill on Academy Road, has wanted to have a patio at his casual fine-dining spot for years.
Now, finally, he does.
"It wasn’t until this year that things started to jibe," he says. "In the past with the licensing, the permits, the fees, the cost of building the patio and buying furniture weighed up against the very short season."
But if there’s a word to sum up running a restaurant in 2020, it’s "pivot." When dining rooms closed in March, Fusion Grill, like many Winnipeg restaurants, had to pivot to takeout and delivery. Despite some misgivings about third-party delivery as a concept — "it’s difficult when you put out a product at our price point, at our quality, and then you put it into the hands of someone who’s not really part of the organization, and it’s out there," he says — McTaggart has worked with Skip the Dishes since 2014.
"It went from, ‘how do we maximize our opportunities with third-party delivery?’ to ‘I need a job,’" he says with a laugh. "So, I said, ‘OK — I want a job as a Skip driver. The caveat is: I’m going to be the exclusive driver for Fusion Grill.’" Skip went for the idea, and McTaggart has had ‘delivery driver’ in his job description since March.
The addition of a temporary sidewalk patio was another way Fusion could pivot. The tables McTaggart couldn’t use in the dining room because of distancing requirements were moved outside. A friend helped build the infrastructure. The result is a space that’s "more al fresco dining than a patio," McTaggart says, and people have been loving it.
“In the past with the licensing, the permits, the fees, the cost of building the patio and buying furniture weighed up against the very short season.” – Scot McTaggart
With such a small space, McTaggart finds having the flexibility afforded by a temporary patio has been a big help. "I have six tables in the dining room, and I have five tables on the patio, so I’m almost at regular capacity."
The outdoor space allows for distancing without the addition of Plexiglas dividers. "I want people to relax and suspend belief and enjoy each other’s company when they walk into a restaurant," McTaggart says, adding that while people might be ready to go out to dinner, they may not be ready to dine indoors.
"A patio is a really nice stepping stone to help return to the dining room."
Over at the Ruby West on Westminster Avenue, Jamie Hilland, who co-owns the new Wolseley eatery with his wife Laura Hilland, along with Erin and Peter Keating, says the addition of a temporary sidewalk patio has been a blessing for a small restaurant like his.
"We only have seating for 33 inside, and trying to maintain six-feet distancing has cut it to less than half that. Without a sidewalk patio and that seating, our business would be in jeopardy, to be honest."
Not only is their spot small, it’s also new. The Ruby West just opened in October. "We definitely would not have chosen to open a restaurant in a pandemic if we had our choice, or just immediately before," he says with a laugh. "But I think, overarching, it’s been really nice to see the community really support us. We’ve had a lot of people come out and say, ‘I’m going to eat at your restaurant every week; I’m going to make a point of it.’"
“That’s one big thing we’re really pleased about: it’s become a community gathering spot, and that was always our vision and intention from the outset.” – Jamie Hilland
Like Fusion, the Ruby West turned to takeout. And when pandemic restrictions were relaxed, it could seat eight on its permanent, 16-seat patio, and 11 on the sidewalk patio — which was a no-brainer, owing to the lack of grass on the boulevard out front.
"It’s already set up to be a patio space — and there’s a good wide sidewalk so there’s enough room for people to pass through. People really like sitting streetside; it’s a place to see and be seen. People who are walking or biking by make a point to stop in," Hilland says. The addition of soft-serve ice cream to the menu has been a real patio draw.
"That’s one big thing we’re really pleased about: it’s become a community gathering spot, and that was always our vision and intention from the outset."
Back at Fusion Grill, McTaggart hopes the city will continue to work with restaurants on establishing temporary patios going forward.
“Why can’t Winnipeg be Patio City? If someone is breaking the law or being a pain in the ass, deal with those people. But if you’re following guidelines and making it work and it’s helping out your business, why the heck not?” – Scot McTaggart
"Why can’t Winnipeg be Patio City?" McTaggart asks. "If someone is breaking the law or being a pain in the ass, deal with those people. But if you’re following guidelines and making it work and it’s helping out your business, why the heck not?"
Hilland, who is currently working through the permitting process to make the Ruby West’s sidewalk space permanent, echoes that sentiment.
"Applying for a permanent sidewalk patio is a bit of a barrier that I hope the City would really try to work with businesses in the future to try to make that happen," he says. "Especially in a COVID era, it’s critical for a lot of businesses to survive. Seating outside, as we know, is much safer than sitting inside."
To that end, Hilland is looking at making the Ruby West’s permanent patio, which has walls, a four-season space. "In the fall and winter, we’d like to embrace the outdoor patio concept as well — get some heaters out there, and we have artistic friends who want to build snow sculptures."
Pre-pandemic, summers were traditionally slow for Fusion Grill. "How do you compete with the barbecue in the backyard or the cottage or the golf course? It’s a short season," McTaggart says. "People want to get out."
A patio means possibilities for the future.
"Maybe summer doesn’t have to be the slowest time of year for us," McTaggart says.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.