When East India Company Pub & Eatery opened its downtown Winnipeg doors Friday for the first time in months, it was quiet. Very quiet.
Then, a single customer walked in — and owner Sachit Mehra said it felt like a packed house again.
"That gentleman probably had more care than he’d ever had before," he joked Tuesday. "Everyone was at the table: ‘Is everything good, is everything alright, can we bring you anything else?’"
That coddled customer would be the only one the Indian eatery would have for the lunch period. Friday night marked a few more visitors, and the Valentine’s Day weekend was steady.
Despite being limited to 25 per cent of the restaurant’s capacity — around 40 people — under current COVID-19 public heath restrictions, Mehra even called Sunday night "busy."
While a handful of Manitoba restaurants have chosen to stick to take-out and delivery for the time being, some took advantage of the recently loosened restrictions on in-person dining, even if it came at a financial cost.
"We’re not making money, what we’re doing is probably just supplementing the take-out and delivery portion of the business right now," Mehra said.
"But at the same time, for us, keeping in mind that we’re very fortunate that the space is huge and we’re able to do all that, is to at the very least get back into the flow of what it is to be a restaurant again."
"But at the same time, for us, keeping in mind that we’re very fortunate that the space is huge and we’re able to do all that, is to at the very least get back into the flow of what it is to be a restaurant again." – East India Company Pub & Eatery owner Sachit Mehra
Making the tough decision of whether or not to reopen was a matter of weighing the pros and cons for King’s Head Pub owner Chris Graves. Since reopening, the downtown watering hole has lost between $1,000 and $1,500 a day — but staff wanted to get back to work, and regulars they wanted to see.
"At 25 per cent capacity, we’re just going to lose money, everybody in our industry will lose money, that’s just the plain and simple of it," Graves said.
"But for us, being able to open for just that mental relief and mental reprieve outweighed the cost."
Graves hopes more people will feel confident venturing out to drink and dine in-person soon, but as of now, has no plans to close up, should customers stay at a minimum for the next while.
"As much money as we’re losing — listen, we’ve lost a huge amount of money in the year since we first closed down March 16 (2020)," he said. "So for us, what’s three more weeks?
"It’s going to hurt, but it allows us to also be ready to be prepared that we can open up as soon as restrictions, hopefully, get lifted a little more."
Elsewhere, Jay Kilgour wasn’t sure if a guest had made a mistake when they tipped 100 per cent on their order after a meal at Fionn MacCool’s.
When Kilgour, a franchisee of the Irish pub chain, went to confirm the tip, "The guest had told me he felt like he hadn’t sacrificed much compared to other people, especially hospitality industry staff."
It wasn’t the only heartwarming moment in the four days since reopening, Kilgour said, but it hasn’t all been perfect.
“The general consensus from all of my staff was they wanted to open, they wanted to start making tips – and I felt that they’ve been through so much that I owe it to them that if they were willing to try, we would open.” – Jay Kilgour, Fionn MacCool’s
Fionn MacCool’s, which seats around 40 at 25 per cent capacity, will not turn a profit at 25 per cent. The positive feedback from customers was greater than expected, but he also expected more visitors on opening day.
"The general consensus from all of my staff was they wanted to open, they wanted to start making tips — and I felt that they’ve been through so much that I owe it to them that if they were willing to try, we would open," Kilgour said.
Recalling an incident where a pair left within minutes of ordering drinks, Kilgour said he and staff have had to shift their perspective on hospitality to fit needs brought on by the pandemic.
"I think one of the main problems right now with hospitality, in general, is that so much of what we do has changed but the public’s expectations of us haven’t," he said.
"For the first time in my hospitality career, service isn’t No. 1 — safety is, because it has to be."
Other restaurant operators are feeling the weight of expectations, too.
Athina Parasidis was expecting more customers at the Nook, the Sherbrook Street diner she co-owns, than it received over the last four days.
"I don’t know if the cold had anything to do with it, or if people are being extra cautious still," she said. "If people are just being cautious, it’s for the best, I feel. We want to just keep moving forward and not have to shut down again."
Despite lukewarm attendance, which she called "not great but not horrible," Parasidis said she has no regrets about reopening for in-person dining.
"Everybody’s been waiting for this day, so I just went for it... You have to be seen and heard, you just have to do it," she said. "There’s no precedent for this case, we’ve never been through a pandemic before, so I just figured we would open and see what happens."
The diner’s menu has been reduced, old stock has been thrown out, and the Nook may lose a few good servers to other opportunities — but any opening is better than staying closed, she said.
Especially considering the next closure could be its last.
"I just don’t think that we can, personally, survive another shutdown," Parasidis said.
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.