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The coronavirus pandemic has not been kind to Winnipeg’s dining scene. Over the past few months, the city’s restaurants have had to figure out how to stay afloat on takeout or close their doors — some of them permanently.
So it’s nice to report, amid the gloom and uncertainty, that two husband-and-wife teams have actually opened new restaurants.
Tom and Heather Hoang had planned to open the latest location of Pho Hoang, their growing chain of acclaimed Vietnamese restaurants, in the former Desart space at 117 Osborne St. back in March.
And then Manitoba announced its first cases of COVID-19.
"It was a shock," Heather says of those first few weeks.
We’re sitting in the Osborne Village location, which was finally able to open its doors in June. The hip, airy space, inspired by the couple’s travels to Vietnam and Thailand, is unrecognizable from its former life as a quirky boutique.
It’s also set to become one of the most Instagrammed rooms in the city, from the patterned tiles on the floor to the stunning skylight to the cheeky sign on the wall urging you to "save room pho dessert." (Osborne is also home to the couple’s second location of Rollesque, which serves the mesmerizing Thai-style rolled ice cream the pair first introduced to the city at the original Sargent location of Pho Hoang.)
"We wanted to make it feel like you’re sitting right on the street in Saigon, having some coffee," says Heather, who worked with designer Lynn Fenwick. "I think that’s the feeling we wanted to bring into the space."
For a long time, though, their beautiful new restaurant sat with papered-covered windows as the pandemic forced everyone to suspend dine-in services, and Tom and Heather pivoted to takeout at their Sargent and Portage locations.
"We lost about 50 per cent of sales for the first month," Tom says. "And then it got better."
Since the first Pho Hoang location opened on Sargent back in 2011, Tom has worked hard to make sure his pho is the best you’ve ever had.
"We’ve had a lot of people from New York, California, Vancouver, Toronto — whenever they come to our restaurant, they say it’s the best Vietnamese restaurant in the world. We want to make it the best, in Winnipeg, so everyone, when they come to Winnipeg, they must talk about Winnipeg when they get home," he says with a laugh.
Tom feels lucky to be able to keep doing what he does best.
"We’re lucky we’ve been able to survive the past few months," he adds. "A lot of restaurants, they have to shut down. Some of them, they have to close down forever. But we’re lucky that customers support us, and we keep going."
"A lot of restaurants, they have to shut down. Some of them, they have to close down forever. But we’re lucky that customers support us, and we keep going.” –Tom Hoang
That would not have been possible without his dedicated staff, he says. "I have 45 people working for me. They are like front-line workers; they just keep working hard. I really admire my workers."
Now, Heather and Tom say that they are happy Osborne is open, "but we’re still a little bit worried," Tom says. "We don’t know when this will happen again with the second wave, if we’ll have to shut down again and have the same feeling like March."
"Right now, it’s day by day," Heather adds.
Opening a new restaurant during a pandemic is challenge enough, but there are added pressures when one is opening a restaurant in a neighbourhood whose vibrancy has been dulled by a growing number of vacancies. (Osborne Village lost two restaurants, Stella’s and Segovia, in the past few weeks.) People have high hopes for Pho Hoang and what it might do for the area.
"People have actually said, ‘Oh, Pho Hoang will bring life back to Osborne,’ Heather says. "It made us feel like it’s worth it."
Over in the Polo Park area, Tristan and Melanie Foucault were gearing up to open Preservation Hall Eatery and Wine Bar in the former Kelsey’s and Barley Brothers space at 655 Empress St. in March when the pandemic hit.
"We literally had our first interviews scheduled at Starbucks on March 16 and, we walked in to have them, and all tables and chairs were gone," says Tristan, the former chef at Peasant Cookery in the Exchange District. "We thought, ‘That’s not a good sign.’"
A worldwide pandemic was not the horizon when they scouted the location last July and, when they took possession in December, a new virus causing an outbreak in Wuhan had yet to be named.
"When it all happened, we were like, ‘Well, it’s too late now to turn back,’" Melanie says with a laugh.
Walking into Preservation Hall, which officially opened at the end of June, it’s hard to believe it was ever a chain restaurant or a pub. The formerly dark and cavernous space — there was a lot of brown, and a lot of wall-mounted TVs — has been lightened up with grey and white; the pretty, French-inspired, vintage-modern decor complements the rustic, French-inspired dishes that populate the menu, which also features plenty of Manitoba ingredients.
"It’s as farm-to-table as much as we can be," Tristan says. "It’s a lot of old-world stuff like charcuterie." Indeed, the "preservation" in Preservation Hall is an intentional nod to all the curing and pickling done in house; Tristan is well-regarded as an authority on butchering and curing meat.
It’s the kind of spot you may expect to find downtown, but Preservation Hall is filling a gap in a high-traffic neighbourhood that doesn’t have anything like it.
"It’s close to downtown without being downtown, has ample parking, it’s close to the airport," Melanie says. "It’s also one of the only independently owned restaurants in the area. You have all the chains in the Polo Park area but, aside from Rae and Jerry’s, there pretty much isn’t any independently owned restaurants."
While the pair say it’s amazing to be open, "one of the things we hadn’t necessarily anticipated was just how much it would affect people’s dining-out habits," Melanie says.
"We’re still in a pandemic, even though we’re doing so well in Manitoba. So I think a lot of people are choosing to dine out less or not take a chance on a new place. That has definitely affected our projections for the volume of guests." (Right now, the space, which can normally seat 160 inside and 48 on the patio, is operating at roughly 50 per cent to adhere to physical distancing.)
“We’re still in a pandemic, even though we’re doing so well in Manitoba. So I think a lot of people are choosing to dine out less or not take a chance on a new place." –Melanie Foucault
Still, the response they’ve received so far has been encouraging.
"We’ve been open three days now and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive," Melanie says. "On Facebook, on OpenTable, on Google reviews, we already have several five-star reviews and very positive feedback from the guests as far as how amazing the food is."
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
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