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Restaurant dream quickly becomes social-distancing nightmare

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Last November, when the world was a very different place, Zhehong Wen decided he'd like to open his own poké restaurant.

Since moving to Winnipeg close to four years ago, Wen had a three-year stint at Japanese restaurant Dwarf No Cachette, and a brief tenure at Wasabi on Broadway. Since he was 18, when he left his home in China to learn Japanese cooking techniques in Tokyo, Wen had dreamed about creating a menu of his own — hiring his staff, picking his ingredients, running his very own kitchen.

Wen was hesitant, knowing the logistical challenges of starting a restaurant required herculean effort and that lasting success was something many restaurateurs struggled to find. His wife, Li, a positive thinker, encouraged him: "If this is something you want to do, we will do it together," she said.

So the couple scouted locations, eventually viewing the former location of Bokado, a Mexican restaurant on Edmonton Street. It was perfect: the rent was affordable, the neighbourhood walkable and right around the corner were thousands of office workers they envisioned filling the spacious dining room and grabbing spicy tuna bowls to go.

Zhehong Wen and his wife Li spent most of their savings getting the restaurant ready to open. (Miaelka MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Zhehong Wen and his wife Li spent most of their savings getting the restaurant ready to open. (Miaelka MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

They did their due diligence; developing recipes, purchasing attractive seating, investing in kitchen upgrades and hiring five staff, spending the lion's share of their savings to get the business going. On their calendar, they decided on an opening date for Poké Mono: Monday, March 9.

Opening a restaurant is hard enough, as it is. Now they were doing it in the middle of a global pandemic.

"We were so excited about our opening, but..." Wen said Thursday morning, beginning to cry after preparing rice and cutting vegetables for what he hoped would be a busy day.

"It's all changed so quickly. We went from zero cases (in Manitoba) to 17 so quickly."

This is one of the strangest and most difficult times restaurants have ever faced, and proprietors such as Wen are facing intensely stressful decisions every day. While the Manitoba government hasn't ordered restaurants to close their dining rooms — they've advised residents to avoid crowds of 50 or more people — other provinces, such as Ontario, have delivered an edict that all dine-in service be suspended.

Zhehong Wen hired five staff in preparation for the crowds they were expecting. Now it's only him. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Zhehong Wen hired five staff in preparation for the crowds they were expecting. Now it's only him. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

In Winnipeg, dozens of restaurants are proactively heeding that call, even if by law they don't have to, shifting instead to delivery and takeout service. But that is not an easy choice to make, even if it is a morally upstanding one: servers, front-of-house workers, bussers — the people who make restaurants function — are all temporarily in flux.

Just days after opening, Wen faced a dilemma: in his view, he couldn't ethically require his staff of five to come in to work, but he also could not, no matter how much he wished he could, afford to pay them. He explained the situation, and now, a week after opening, is the only one there.

"I just feel so sorry, and I really want to bring them back," he said. "I told them, during interviews, whoever works here, we will build this place together."

The dining room is bright, filled with beautiful greenery and stylishly furnished, and the poké bar is stocked with fresh ingredients, but Wen anticipates most of his meals will be eaten elsewhere for the time being.

Shaun Jeffrey, the executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant & Foodservices Association, says his organization has begun to put together a comprehensive resource for independent businesses such as Poké Mono, keeping track of rules, regulations and advice on what do do during this uncertain time.

Poké Mono needs to get on food-delivery service apps in order to survive. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Poké Mono needs to get on food-delivery service apps in order to survive. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The West End BIZ and Downtown BIZ have been compiling lists of restaurants offering delivery and takeout, as well as which businesses have closed or temporarily changed their hours.

Wen had been working on setting up app-based delivery, which has become an unlikely lifeline for an industry it once threatened to upend.

DoorDash is waiving commission for 30 days for independent restaurants that sign up until the end of April, and SkipTheDishes announced a 30-day support package, including a rebate on commissions from every order placed. Winnipeg-based Skip is also offering users the option of leaving a tip with 100 per cent of the proceeds going to the restaurant; that's in addition to the customer tip for their courier.

As of Thursday, Wen was still working to get on either system.

He doesn't regret opening; how could he and his wife have predicted the current turmoil restaurants face? But he knows his restaurant's chances of survival are, like hundreds of others across the city, uncertain.

"I believe we can make it," he said.

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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