The Bluebird Cafe and Grill in Orangeville, Ontario has had several lives, first in 1982 as an unlicensed, vegetarian eatery, then expanding its fare as a natural food store. In 1989, the business changed hands and officially became The Bluebird Café and Grill and evolved one more time into a fully licensed scratch kitchen restaurant.
In 2019, husband and wife duo Michelle and Rick Arsenault (longtime hospitality professionals) purchased the business largely because of the extreme sentimental value it had to them. Michelle and Rick had moved to Orangeville in 2006 and in 2016, Michelle had taken a job at the cafe as a server. The establishment had been the couples’ favourite spot since moving to Orangeville. Taking ownership of Bluebird allowed Michelle and RIck to continue its standing traditions and bring it to a new level.
Though The Bluebird has evolved throughout the years, it seems that no other time period has spurred on as much evolution and change, as the pandemic. “We evolved with every lockdown it seemed,” states Michelle.
During the first lockdown of March 2020, the establishment shut down for three weeks before they were even mandated to. “Everything at that point was so unknown and we wanted to do our part,” explains Michelle. “When we realized that this crisis wasn’t going away any time soon, we opened back up for takeout with a limited staff, and reduced hours and menu.”
Interest in takeout increasingly grew for the Bluebird, and when the opportunity presented itself for patio dining, they decided to jump on it. Though the Bluebird had never had a patio in the 40 or so years they’ve been open, once again – the team and establishment evolved. It was a much-needed evolution as the operation was closed for indoor dining for approximately 375 days and were able to offer patio dining for 200 days.
“With the help of the town and some dear friends, we got a Boulevard patio together in about four days,” says Michelle. At its most optimal, between outdoor dining, takeout, and then indoor dining reopening eventually, they were able to seat at about 80 per cent capacity.
“Adapting through each transition was extremely difficult and with every lockdown, we learned and experimented to find the best practices,” states Michelle. “This time around we kept the full menu and kept all of our culinary team on staff.”
In a time when many operators are facing labour shortages, the team at Bluebird was able to circumvent the issue by keeping on as much staff as they could. “We didn’t need all this staff but we didn’t want them to have financial strains if we could avoid it. We also wanted to keep them employed so they did not have to look for other employment and we would have them when we reopened,” explains Michelle.
With the increase in staff, this actually freed up some time for Michelle and Rick to focus on the branding side of the business. “We used the extra time to implement online ordering, redo our website, upgrade our POS systems, change our gift card and business cards,” Michelle details.
“We also took the time to create takeout ‘experiences’,” says Michelle. “Many of us hit a pandemic wall during lockdown and we were bored. We wanted to try and remedy that so we did at-home paint nights, virtual wine tastings, and a virtual dinner theatre with our Orangeville theatre.”
Michelle and Rick really capitalized on this downtime and smartly, made the most of a challenging situation. In a time where we were separated, the team made sure to emphasize excellent customer experience.
“Though we couldn’t connect directly with consumers, we engaged in different ways and trained our takeout team to create ‘in-house hospitality’,” describes Michelle. “We started writing personalized notes on every bag that went out, we started offering curbside service, we started walking with guests to their vehicles; we had to ensure a competitive advantage and keep our ‘takeout game’ above everyone else because everyone else was now doing takeout!”
Michelle and Rick capitalized on the opportunity to reach out to customers in other ways as well – primarily with social media marketing. “We changed the focus on our social media during this time and also joined Tik Tok,” says Michelle. “Being in hospitality, we are always on stage and entertaining our guests along with being social and not being able to see people, this was our only way of connecting. It has really grown much bigger than we imagined. Check us out on Tik Tok – @bluebirdcafandgrill.”
In order to stay afloat, Bluebird took advantage of a number of government programs including the wage subsidies, PPE grants, digital marketing grants, HASCAP loan, energy rebate grants, and CEBA. Unfortunately, they were not able to apply for the rent subsidy, and a few other small business grants that they didn’t qualify for.
“As long as we can stay open however, we will be ok,” admits Michelle. “It would be nice to get a little more time to recoup some income before they reduce grants.” Michelle also points out the government support on tourism promotions, and ongoing development of programs to assist with hiring and more consistent restrictions would go a long way for the survival of their business.
“The Bluebird has been a staple in the Orangeville community for so long and means so much to us on a personal level,” says Michelle. “We always try to give back and support local whenever possible. We have such a loyal following and it is important for us to get through this for everyone who supports us. We made a vow to our team, to our community and to each other that we would come out of this pandemic stronger than when we went in.”
If you want to support businesses like Michelle and Rick’s, visit SupportRestaurants.ca. There, you can join our Restaurant Survival Coalition by filling out a form and sending 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.