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A longtime staple for final goodbyes and midday work coffees at Winnipeg’s James Armstrong Richardson International airport is taking off next month — the Stella’s Café on the departure floor announced Friday it intends to close its gates for good on Oct. 16.
On Sunday afternoon the typical Stella’s lunch rush was but a trickle; with only a dozen flights scheduled for the rest of the day, the departures floor and its nine-year restaurant tenant were marked by a typical COVID-19 quiet. A few travellers lingered in booths, others grabbed coffees to-go, but the typically bustling café was still quieter-than-normal.
Wendy Robson, who works in the airport, comes to the Stella’s at least once or twice a week and noted business at the café has been down significantly as flight traffic plummeted with travel restrictions .
"It’s the only good place to eat, really," she said outside the restaurant Sunday.
She might try Freshii, or the Tim Hortons on the arrivals floor, but the loss of her regular lunch spot came as a disappointment — though not a big surprise.
"I’m sure it’s very difficult for any restaurants to do well," she said.
Emmerson Bader stops at Stella’s two or three times a year when flying through the city to visit family in Brandon.
He’s travelling less this year, owing to the coronavirus, and was saddened to hear the familiar café would be closed the next time he passes through.
"I’m surprised to hear they’re closing," said Bader, who knows the business owners personally. "I’ll have to give the owner a call."
In a statement Friday, the company cited declining business due to the pandemic as the reason for the closure.
"Unfortunately, due to the severe decline in air traffic and the long-term outlook resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is with very heavy hearts that we must announce the difficult decision to close the Stella’s airport location," said Rob Del Grosso, vice-president at Stella’s, in the statement.
Staff at the airport will be given opportunities to find work at other Stella’s locations, the statement added.
The airport anticipates traffic of less than two million passengers both this year and next, said Tyler MacAfee, vice-president of communications and government relations for the Winnipeg Airport Authority, in an interview Sunday.
Though the airport passed through the lowest points of its air-traffic decline in April and is seeing modest increases in travel, normalcy is still a long way off.
"Typically in the fall is when you see a lot of the business travel… but with that being restricted we’re not anticipating an increase in traffic in the fall," MacAfee said.
"That’s going to leave businesses with that decision to make of what the future looks like for them."
Concessions at the airport are managed through a contract with SSP Group, who specialize in airport food services, and set parameters like rent with the airport’s food and beverage tenants. MacAfee said while SSP directly manages contracts like Stella’s it’s expected that airport concessions at Winnipeg Richardson will continue to reflect low travel numbers for quite some time.
"Every concession kind of has a different need to justify being open, so they’re going to take a look at that and see as the traffic slowly starts to come back," he said. "There’s still some that are closed and will probably be closed for a while."
While staff at Stella’s were unable to comment on the loss of one of the airport’s longest-standing food services, MacAfee noted the café has been a staple at the Winnipeg airport since the terminal opened and would be missed by travellers and staff alike.
"From families who are saying goodbye to each other and getting that last breakfast before someone heads off on a plane, you see air crews there getting a coffee before they take off, even just employees of the airport who get together over lunch, those are all great things at Stella’s," MacAfee said.
While some airport restaurants plan to reopen in the near future, MacAfee said the airport authority will be on the lookout for a concession option to replace the Stella’s location.
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.
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