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Order up: Manitoba restaurants back in business

Interest from diners a promising sign as eateries adjust to post-pandemic world

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"Is jubilant too strong of a word?"

Sachit Mehra laughs after being asked how people are feeling during lunch hour at East India Company Pub and Eatery on York Avenue, which he owns. The long-standing downtown Indian spot was able to serve dine-in customers Monday for the first time since mid-March, and the atmosphere is fascinating. Mehra said.

"People are coming in with giant smiles, they really want to sit down," he said. "My observation of the tables I’ve seen is people are sitting down, they’re having these intense discussions with each other, really participating in that social interaction."

Phase 2 of Manitoba’s reopening of the economy began Monday, and with that comes the ability to host dine-in customers at restaurants for the first time in months. With it comes trepidation, and many restaurants are remaining closed for the time being.

A slow and steady restart is what Mehra’s expecting as the weeks go on, but the immediate interest is a good sign: a handful of lunch customers have already come and gone, and there were a few reservations already in the books for Monday night.

"What I can tell from what I’ve seen so far, the interest in the phone calls, there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of curious questions… if that’s any indication, then I think we should be busy," he said.

East India Company owner Sachit Mehra opened his doors to customers on Monday for the first time in over two months. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

East India Company owner Sachit Mehra opened his doors to customers on Monday for the first time in over two months. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The buffet service is a well-known aspect of East India Company’s service, but public health officials are not allowing the return of them with phase two. The restaurant plans to stick to their à la carte menu and offer a thali system – meaning customers can pick a few of their buffet favourites and some desserts and have it served to their table on a round platter.

Phase 2 snapshots: nails, massage and getting that tattoo finished

Two months to the day since provincial public health officials closed non-essential businesses and services, Manitobans began returning to restaurants, getting their nails done, having a massage, or getting a tattoo.

Monday marked the second phase of Manitoba's gradual reopening of the economy, after weeks of closure to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Two months to the day since provincial public health officials closed non-essential businesses and services, Manitobans began returning to restaurants, getting their nails done, having a massage, or getting a tattoo.

Monday marked the second phase of Manitoba's gradual reopening of the economy, after weeks of closure to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Here is how the day went for some Winnipeg businesses:

Nails, waxing salon

Downtown at the decades-old Magic Room, patrons were able to get their first manicures, pedicures, waxing and sugaring in weeks.

Erika Giannini, who bought the business three years ago, said her two hair stylists were able to start last month, when the province allowed hair salons to reopen to customers, but the rest of its services had to wait until Monday.

"Lots of people have been calling to book appointments," Giannini said. "The phone has been ringing since we opened... That's good, because we really didn't know what to expect when you've been closed for awhile."

Giannini said because of the personal services her 7,000-square-foot salon offers, her staff have always worked to keep the place clean and sterile. However, changes have been implemented.

"A plastic shield has been installed at our registration desk, as well as manicure stations," she said. "All esthecians will wear face masks but, for any work being done closer than six feet for an extended period of time, they will wear an additional plastic shield."

Giannini said her business was one of many that made the decision to close almost two weeks before the government ordered non-essential businesses and services to do so.

"It was when there were beginning to be cases of the virus here," she said. "I think with us and others closing when we did, it had a really positive effect on the number of cases (in Manitoba). It looks like it worked."

Tattoo

Kapala Tattoo artist Rich Handford's first client Monday had a half-finished polar bear on his body.

"He has been waiting for three months to finish the tattoo," said Handford, his voice muffled behind a face mask.

"Unfortunately, until (Monday) we couldn't do anything about it. But he was one of the first we reached out to to book an appointment."

While Handford was pleased to get back to work, he also expressed frustration when, at the last minute, provincial health inspectors said fewer artists could work at his location.

"We knew we could only have 50 per cent of our business coming in, but now they say only half of our staff can be here. That means 3 1/2 people tattooing in a 3,000-square-foot space," he said. "We rescheduled three months of appointments, which we staggered, but now they are saying only half of us can do our job... I think, despite our high levels of training in infection and control, there continues to be stigma to our profession."

Yoga

Reid Davies, co-owner of the downtown and Waverley Street Modo Yoga locations, said while studios were allowed to reopen Monday, his wouldn't be able to for another week.

"We're taking the time to finish renovations and to set up our social-distancing guidelines," Davies said, adding most of the renovations are COVID-19 related.

"We're putting in a hospital-grade coating on our floor... which will make it easier to clean. So what we are doing is part aesthetic and part functional."

Davies said his locations will be opening June 8 for the customers who continued to automatically pay member fees throughout the pandemic, and a week later for everyone else.

"I can't stress enough how great that group was," he said. "But this is like reopening a new business but in the weirdest time ever in history."

Spas

The Thermea spa and wellness centre has been closed since March 15, but Phase 2 allows the return of some services.

Thermea spokeswoman Marianne Trotier said massage treatments are the first services to be offered.

"We have started to take reservations last week, and most of our guests mentioned to us how happy they are to be able to receive a massage after a stressful period, working at home, with non-adapted office equipment and space," she said.

Trotier said new pandemic provisions include not allowing walk-in appointments — all services have to reserved in advance. As well, all guests will be asked at time of booking if they are healthy, and then again when they arrive.

The spa has installed contactless check-in kiosks, as well as automatic doors and antibacterial door handles. It is not allowing people to bring their own bathrobes and water bottles.

Trotier said Thermea is aiming at a July reopening of its pools and saunas, with the necessary guidance and measures from Manitoba Health.

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Slow and steady seems to be the motto for restaurants opening Monday. Brazen Hall proprietor Kristján Kristjánsson said the Pembina Highway brewery and comfort-food spot took much of the day to train staff on new procedures.

"Today was more about being a positive, healthy environment for our staff, and giving them just a nice easy start," he said.

Customers have been calling regularly for the last three days, but it wasn't certain if the restaurant would be ready to open Monday – the restaurant’s official Instagram account didn’t announce the reopening until early Monday afternoon – but interest has been high from those "looking to find a little more of that past normal," Kristjánsson said.

"I think the biggest challenge is to give people, after the safe and clean peace we’ve made sure of, provide a fun, good energy," he said.

Mehra is the third generation of East India Company owners, and despite that history as a fixture in the local food scene, said there hasn't been a historical event since their start that has shaken the industry more.

Salisbury House server Jennifer Check takes an order from two metres away during the first day the restaurant was allowed to reopen with customers inside. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Salisbury House server Jennifer Check takes an order from two metres away during the first day the restaurant was allowed to reopen with customers inside. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"We’ve kind of seen it all, but we’ve never, ever seen something like this," he said.

Surveys of local restaurants seem to reflect that feeling. A recent poll conducted by Restaurants Canada suggested 70 per cent of Manitoba restaurants may not have the funds needed to survive post-pandemic. Both East India Company and Brazen Hall have had to make considerable changes. Mehra credited the restaurant’s delivery service and longevity as crucial to keeping it afloat over months of closure, and Kristjánsson mentioned some things have been removed from the menu to keep costs low.

Despite what could be a tough road ahead, both say customers are already coming in, and they're ready to keep coming back.

Small business owner Cindy Rodych works near East India Company, and stopped by for lunch with her team Monday afternoon. Waiters wore masks, people were kept apart, but there was also the "wonderful" feeling of enjoying a shared meal (there was a variety of different dishes, but lots of butter chicken) around a table of eight, something Rodych called a normalizing experience after months spent away.

"I was really happy to do it, I think it’s been a challenge for all of us, and I wanted to make sure we’re supporting the local restaurants that have been through so much," she said.

Meanwhile, it didn't take long for customers to begin showing up at the Salisbury House at St. Anne's Road and Fermor Boulevard. Troy Jeffrey, the location's operations manager, said two patrons were already waiting outside the doors when staff clicked open the lock at 6 a.m.

"It hasn't been that bad," Jeffrey said a few hours later. "We thought it would be crazy, but it is a Monday. It has been a steady pace since then.

Salisbury House customers Ken Veness (right) and Mario Catacutan eat lunch together Monday, the first time the restaurant has been open for dine-in customers in months. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Salisbury House customers Ken Veness (right) and Mario Catacutan eat lunch together Monday, the first time the restaurant has been open for dine-in customers in months. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"So far, so good. It's just nice to have people back in here again."

The restaurant, normally open 24/7, is still limiting itself to 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. It has spaced diners at tables two metres away from each other and has a dedicated person at the door making sure there aren't too many people inside.

"We came close to capacity a couple of times," Jeffrey said, noting not only do they appreciate the diners coming in, the patrons themselves were glad to be able to come back inside.

"We have a lot of loyalty here — it's nice to see them again. You miss having people in your restaurant," he said.

"And many of the customers themselves haven't seen each other for awhile so they were glad to get together for a coffee."

— with files from Kevin Rollason

malak.abas@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: malakabas_

Malak Abas

Malak Abas
Reporter

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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