Saskia Geerts came to Canada from the Netherlands as a backpacker in 2004 and on a tour of Quebec and Ontario, met Claude Perreault – her tour guide. Just 18 short months later, the tour guide and the tourist married and in 2007, moved to Digby, Nova Scotia, making it their home.
The couple has become a community staple; in 2015 they began the process of restoring and renovating a historic building in an effort to create a local watering hole for tourists and neighbours alike. “The property was originally built in 1903 as a church, with beautiful hardwood from floor to ceiling,” says Saskia. “We restored things slowly while modernizing and adding a full commercial kitchen. It had sat empty for several years and was in a bad state of repair.”
After two and a half years of work, the Sydney Street Pub was ready to open. “We have always believed in adding to a community, building value, and supporting local; hiring local musicians, using locally-sourced food and ingredients, and offering a space where people can come together,” explains Saskia.
In March 2020, in the wave of uncertainty, the Sydney Street Pub shut down, and Saskia was forced to lay off her employees. With food insecurity becoming an even larger issue due to COVID-19, Saskia decided to volunteer, delivering meals to those who weren’t able to leave their homes. This opportunity allowed Saskia to develop a deeper understanding of the need facing her community – and she decided to do something about it.
It started with a community fridge on the porch of the restaurant providing free, or pay-what-you-can meals to those who needed it. The donation box collected roughly $10 a meal, paying for the costs of meal ingredients and labour. Saskia states: “At the peak, we were going 80 to 100 meals a week. I was on site every day to restock the fridge. I would disinfect the door of the fridge each time someone would come and go.”
Sydney Street Pub was eventually able to reopen, with a few adjustments. “We reduced our menu and shifted to a blackboard feature menu to be able to add some variety and changing options,” Saskia elaborates. “We shifted to a small core staff without any additional summer hires and we reduced our hours.”
Saskia also points out the difficulties of operating during a pandemic in a smaller market, “during this last lockdown temporarily we closed as takeout just wasn’t worth it. We’ve tried adding delivery as an option, but that is just hard to make viable in a small town with no third-party providers to help. Doing $150 in takeout on a Friday night does not even cover staffing and food cost.”
Fortunately, Sydney Street Pub was able to take advantage of government programs which have been essential to keeping their operation alive. Last October, Saskia believed that they were probably at 60 or 65 per cent (of her revenue) compared to the previous year. “At that level and with the wage subsidy program, I can make ends meet.”
“The wage subsidy program and rent subsidy program have made the biggest impact on us being able to operate and keep people employed while working at half capacity and with all the restrictions. Without these programs, we would not exist today,” Saskia explains.
While these programs have been a lifeline for Sydney Street Pub, they are still facing a number of challenges. “I have now fallen behind further, with more debt added,” Saskia clarifies. “As long as we don’t have the travellers coming through (Digby is very much a tourism town), and we don’t have our usual seating capacity, I’m not sure how I am supposed to keep afloat.”
Saskia goes into further detail: “Expenses are actually higher too; insurance has increased by $1400 due to the pandemic, my food costs have gone up drastically, my staffing hours have increased due to all the extra measures taken (cleaning, sanitizing, keeping track of customer contacts, to name a few things), and my business is still at half capacity. It feels like getting dropped and left behind 50 yards before the finish line.”
After extensive lobbying from Restaurants Canada, most notably through our Restaurants Revival Working Group, the federal government recently announced the extension of the rent and wage subsidies. This is a tremendous win for our hardest hit sector and this announcement represents an important first step towards securing a sustainable recovery for the foodservice industry.
Nevertheless, it’s important to note that “we are not out of the woods once this pandemic is over,” as Saskia puts it. “Businesses have added significant debt loads, and that alone will add a significant burden for the next year(s) to come.”
One of the difficulties many operators have pinpointed as not just a current, but future issue too, is the labour shortage. Saskia explains that she is currently at the point where they are able to bring on full-time staff – but they have had no success: “The biggest challenge is not being able to guarantee hours… how can I hire anyone on a ‘maybe’?”
Though our industry can mark significant wins, there is still work to be done. Restaurants Canada continues to work with the government on several fronts to make sure we get the maximum support in every possible way.
The importance of keeping local restaurants in the picture cannot be understated. “We offer a place for the community to get together, for people to meet, a place to relax and enjoy good company,” says Saskia. “With trivia and live music every week we add liveliness to downtown. We support our community by buying our meats locally, our vegetables from nearby farmers, our fish from neighbourhood suppliers, and even hire local talent. We have always supported local charities, and have worked with one of our local churches to offer meals by donation. Communities need spaces to get together, we are part of the social fabric, the canvas that holds the threads that form a community together.”
If you want to join Saskia and Sydney Street Pub in ensuring the survival of local restaurants, head over to SupportRestaurants.ca. There you can join our Restaurant Survival Coalition by sending a postcard to your Member of Parliament and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland calling for sector-specific support.
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