Robusta Cafe and Lounge in Guelph, Ontario opened in 2016 and was purchased by husband and wife team, Danielle Davidson and Wessel Engelbrecht in February 2020, relaunching in March 2020 – right before the world changed forever. Danielle and Wessel both grew up in Ontario and have worked in Guelph for the last six years. They wanted to provide a gathering place for Guelph’s lively community. “We were attracted to Robusta because it is exactly the kind of spot I’ve dreamed of owning – café and bar hybrid with great charcuterie boards and a focus on local products,” says Danielle. Located in Guelph’s downtown core, the neighbourhood spot prioritizes local – leveraging fresh ingredients from the surrounding area to create dishes for guests in a comfortable and welcoming environment.
Opening right before an unexpected pandemic has created an unstable present and uncertain future for the cafe. Since the beginning of 2020, there have been just over 500 days and Robusta has had indoor dining closed for roughly half of them. Adding insult to injury, the restaurant has only been able to offer outdoor dining for 50 days.
Only being fully for a short time before lockdown, the restaurant only had two full-time employees so fortunately, they have not had to lay anyone off. However, this also means that the team has been forced to challenge themselves by ensuring they can meet fluctuating demand with a barebones staff. The restaurant has been able to since boost their team to a total staff of 10, but they expect to need up to an additional five employees to operate to their fullest.
While they were able to rely on takeout, the constantly changing guidelines or having to reopen (or shut down) at a second’s notice, has been difficult to deal with – professionally and personally. “That was our strategy for the second and third lockdowns as well,” says Danielle. “We gave ourselves a day to be upset and react to the orders and then got back to work!”
Robusta was lucky to take advantage of government programs like the rent and wage subsidies, Ontario small business grants, and local grants however Danielle points out that, “We do not qualify for CEBA because being a new business, we do not have 2019 or 2018 tax returns. We were also not able to receive the full amount for the Ontario small business grant because they required us to file as a new business instead of allowing us to use the numbers from April 2019 under the previous owners.”
Despite some positives, the team admits that they are nervous about what the future holds for them – especially given that the federal government has already begun rolling back the rent and wage subsidies. Danielle explains, “My restaurant is in Ontario so we aren’t even open yet and they are going to roll back support – just as many of us are rebuilding our teams and spending a lot on training. These subsidies have kept my doors open and my staff employed, without them, I would be closed already. The pandemic is not over and the subsidies should not be either. […] CEWS and CERS should be extended to April 2022. These programs are already designed to phase out businesses that reach pre-pandemic levels so we will slowly stop qualifying as our businesses recover.”
Danielle continues: “The Ontario small business support grant is not sufficient enough for what we have been put through. They covered roughly two weeks of expenses and revenue losses for us while we were locked down for 16 weeks.”
Danielle adds that other support from the government, for instance, better pricing for alcohol would make a huge difference for them. “Restaurants need better pricing for alcohol, we should be paying wholesale not a markup.”
Danielle details how the support restaurants see from the government and consumers goes back into the community to benefit the neighbourhood, creating a healthier economy for all. She explains: “The money that we earn goes straight back into the economy as we pay our employees and our many local suppliers. We keep very little if any, of our revenue for ourselves. We purchase supplies and inventory from approximately 30 local suppliers including farmers, breweries, wineries, and specialty shops.”
Not only are restaurants essential for the growth of the economy, but the well-being of those who depend on them to safely share a meal with loved ones. “Our patio has become a place for people to gather who haven’t seen each other in over a year,” says Danielle. “We’ve seen joyful tears and long hugs as friends and family reunite. That is what restaurants are all about – gathering and sharing a meal.”
If there’s a local restaurant in your community, or if you have a restaurant that feeds the community that you don’t want to see disappear – let the government know! Visit SupportRestaurants.ca and use our form to send a postcard to your Member of Parliament and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland asking them for sector-specific support and to request a meeting with our Restaurant Survival Coalition.