Little Goat a pandemic casualty Restaurants struggling even as restrictions end, St. James eatery’s closure will ‘not be an isolated incident’

Sometimes you just can’t wait to get home before you sample the take-out food.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/04/2022 (299 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Sometimes you just can’t wait to get home before you sample the take-out food.

That’s what happened when Lindsay Sawyer Fay’s sister-in-law snuck sips of matzo ball soup while the pair loaded their car with the Passover feast Little Goat Food & Drink had prepared for them.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the St. James restaurant had offered Passover meals in 2020. The following year, Sawyer Fay contacted them for another order, though she said this time it wasn’t advertised.

“I think they made it special just for us,” she said. “Oh my gosh, was it so good.”

Sadly, there will be no more Little Goat Passover feasts for Sawyer Fay.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Little Goat chef Alexander Svenne says in a Facebook post that living ‘half our history’ under a pandemic became too much to bear.

Like the biblical plagues commemorated by the Passover holiday, the coronavirus pandemic has claimed another victim: Little Goat Food & Drink announced its permanent closure Wednesday.

“We opened four years ago with great promise and the dream of being an important part of the vibrant community of St. James for years to come,” the company posted on social media. “However, the pandemic had other ideas.”

Owner/chef Alexander Svenne declined an interview request. Little Goat’s online post laid out its reasons for shuttering.

“For half of our history, we lived under the pandemic,” the Wednesday post read.

“We opened four years ago with great promise and the dream of being an important part of the vibrant community of St. James for years to come. However, the pandemic had other ideas.”
– Little Goat Food & Drink social media post

The eatery, which specialized in French comfort food, “trudged along” and tried a number of different ideas to stay afloat. It didn’t qualify for some government support programs, the post said.

“The reality is that when we did fully reopen, customers came back, but people were cautious,” the post stated. “We didn’t see the boom we needed.”

Building repair and maintenance jobs that were put off during pandemic closures needed attention, and full-service operation brought its own daily expenses, putting Little Goat into further financial troubles.

“There’s going to be more (like Little Goat),” said Shaun Jeffrey, CEO of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association. “This is not an isolated incident.”

“There’s going to be more (like Little Goat). This is not an isolated incident.”
– Shaun Jeffrey, CEO of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association

Le Garage and the Royal Fork Buffet are among the local restaurants to close during the pandemic.

“(Restaurateurs are) sitting on this mountain of debt. They’re sitting on 24 months of not being able to operate at a sustainable level, and that plays very heavily on your future,” Jeffrey said.

Most eateries aren’t seeing the big jump in customers they expected upon reopening, he added.

“A small restaurant like (Little Goat), with limited seating — you’ve got to be full every night,” he said.

Fears around catching COVID-19 in public places are keeping customers away, he added.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Ravi Ramberran, owner of the Four Crowns Restaurant, says a double whammy of low customer traffic and high inflation has eateries struggling.

“I think inflation has a big part to do with it,” said Ravi Ramberran, the owner of Four Crowns Restaurant.

Manitobans are returning to the McPhillips Street hub, but not at 2019 levels, Ramberran said.

“Everything’s very expensive these days,” he said, adding the business has to reprint its menus often because of price fluctuations.

Operating the restaurant has new challenges: Four Crowns is paying more for plumbing, gas fitting, maintenance and food.

“We’re paying, easily, a couple extra thousand dollars a month on truck charges and delivery fees,” Ramberran said. “We’re really, really fine-tooth combing every number that comes in.”

A box of ketchup packets that used to cost $35 is now $51, according to St. James Burger & Chip Co. manager Les Bartle. Natural gas charges have tripled and are set to rise again, he added.

“We’re paying, easily, a couple extra thousand dollars a month on truck charges and delivery fees. We’re really, really fine-tooth combing every number that comes in.”
– Ravi Ramberran, owner of Four Crowns Restaurant

“(Customers) think, ‘Oh, $15 for a burger and fries, you guys are making $10.’ Absolutely not,” Bartle said.

“Everything’s going up at once. It’s not like one thing has gone up. It’s like, I can go from the honey to our pickles to tomatoes… it’s everything across the board, that’s the issue.”

Staff need pay raises; minimum wage is set to increase 40 cents to $12.35 on Oct. 1. Taxes are a constant.

Many restaurants are still struggling to hire workers. Some have reduced their hours or closed off tables because they’re short-handed.

“It’s an uphill battle and it’s sort of this feast or famine thing where… you get the business but you can’t necessarily do it because you don’t have enough staff or enough hours,” said Belinda Bigold, owner of High Tea Bakery. “But then if you bring on the people, you don’t have enough business to pay for them. So it’s this really dicey situation.”

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Belinda Bigold, owner of High Tea Bakery, says balancing staffing and pricing against customer traffic is challenging even as restrictions have ended.

Bigold said it might be better for entrepreneurs to begin restaurants now because they haven’t taken their business through the last two years and accumulated pandemic debt.

“People think, ‘Well, the restrictions are lifted, so now you’re back to where you left off, turn it on, it’s a switch.’ And that’s just not how it works,” she said.

Bartle and Ramberran both noted the difficulty of balancing operating costs with low enough prices to keep customers satisfied.

Jeffrey said government must work with industry to boost consumer confidence.

“We need them saying it’s time to get back out,” he said.

And, restaurants need more staff — the restaurant association is partnering on a hiring fair April 27 to pull in resumes.

“Restaurant operators cannot operate at diminished capacity and diminished hours,” Jeffrey said. “They need every single dollar… to make up for the previous 24 months.”

The independent diners are hit first, he added.

Sawyer Fay, the Little Goat fan, said the restaurant’s closure is like losing a neighbourhood gathering place.

“This one hurts,” she said. “The culture and the sense of community that they created along with the food, that’s rare.”

She said she’ll continue to follow Svenne’s social media in case he starts something new.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES The Little Goat had hoped for a long, fruitful existence at its St. James location. ‘The pandemic had other ideas,’ owner and chef Alexander Svenne says.

Christina Edwards shared Sawyer Fay’s sadness. Edwards was a server at the restaurant and took her first supervisor role there. She called it a supportive environment.

“It was kind of like the only restaurant of its type in that area,” she said. “We have a lot of chains and everything in St. James, but we don’t have a ton of really good little local places. Little Goat was one of those little places.”

Jeff Mckay would buy Little Goat’s family suppers — a pandemic invention — and called the diner one of his favourite restaurants.

“(It was) a little bit eclectic, but that’s what we’re into,” he said. “Just seemed like a very honest group of people just trying to make really great food.”

— With files from Malak Abas

Gabrielle Piché

Gabrielle Piché

Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.

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