Victoria’s restaurants have been sticking it out through COVID-19 closures, limited re-openings, and a handful of positive cases.
Not all of them have been able to make ends meet.
Popular watering hole Logan’s Pub announced they would permanently close their doors due to COVID-19 in October. OLO Restaurant and Mo:Lé Restaurant both shut down this year as well, though neither specifically cited COVID-19.
But with a second wave of COVID-19 causing a surge in cases nationwide, Victoria’s restaurants could be in for their biggest challenge yet: a long, hard winter, and a possible return to stricter regulations.
“The general concern of course was that even the Phase 3 rules limit capacity in restaurants, bars, pubs and lounges,” said Jeff Bray, Executive Director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA). “That of course impacts your revenues.”
That’s why some restaurants are moving to adapt their operations as quickly as possible, including winterizing outdoor patios that blossomed this summer downtown.
Tents, Awnings, and Igloos
The patio outside of QV Cafe looks like a futuristic space camp.
A trio of panelled domes now occupies the space, looking for all the world like a collection of science fiction habitats.
“We thought this would be a perfect solution for the patio,” Channing Qian, the owner and operator of QV Cafe, told Victoria Buzz.
“The structure is very sturdy. It’s made out of steel pipe. It can handle winds up to 120 km.”
The domes are “Wigloos” a product which Qian says has been around for a year or two and which he special-ordered from a manufacturer he knows in China.
There are two smaller versions at QV, each about nine feet in diameter, and a larger 13 foot one.
Each small Wigloo fits around four or five people, while the larger one can fit up to 10 but is currently limited by provincial health orders to 6.
“When we first opened up after the lockdown, we were doing well with the patio,” said Qian.
“But we wondered what happens when patio season ends in October, and we have limited space inside.”
He says that the product could be good for other business owners in Victoria, too. Qian has partnered with his contact in China to offer the products to neighbouring restaurants at a discounted rate, and has already received a lot of interest.
In Market Square, more traditional-looking tents have gone up at Whistle Buoy Brewing Company.
The independent craft brewery worked with their landlord this summer to expedite an extension of their patio, and now they’re working to keep it open through the winter.
“We got about another third of the space than we had previous to the pandemic,” said Isaiah Archer, one of Whistle Buoy’s three founding partners, in an interview with Victoria Buzz.
“That allowed us to keep most of the original occupancy that we had out there.”
He says that Victoria’s restaurants are fortunate in that the moderate, warm climate allows the potential for a year-round patio season.
Whistle Buoy is hoping to capitalize on that possibility by protecting their patio with tents and sweetening the deal for pub-goers with a pair of food truck partners.
Los Panas Kitchen and The Wandering Mollusk are both featured on the outdoor patio for select days of the week.
“People have enjoyed those little extra things,” said Archer. “The tents have been awesome to keep people dry. We have heaters as well, and we can close the sides up.”
He says they intend to keep the tents through the winter and into next year. They are also negotiating with their landlord about making the tents permanent or installing a more fixed structure like a retractable awning.
Archer credits the landlord and government bodies for partnering with Whistle Buoy during a difficult time to permit things that would not normally be allowed in Market Square.
“The fact that we were able to get the approvals to get the extension within a week is kind of unheard of,” he said.
“Now that that is extended as it is, it seems to me that we will more than likely be able to keep this patio, moving forward even after next year.”
That spirit of cooperation has also helped with the quick construction and success of the patio at Yates St. Taphouse, according to co-founder Grant Turner.
He says that when the pandemic first caused closures in Victoria, he set to work on plans to expand the pub’s outdoor space.
“I could see things happening in other jurisdictions, in other areas, including the States,” Turner said in an interview with Victoria Buzz.
“If you took a step back you could see the things that the City would be requiring.”
Yates St. Taphouse was in an enviable position, according to Turner. With two partners handling the operational side of the business, he was free to dive into planning for a long-term patio.
The pub operator hired a photographer and designer and was able to present plans for government scrutiny early on in the summer.
Turner says that while he doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with Victoria council, he felt supported in the process by partners and government officials alike.
“If you have as much information and all the questions answered prior to going to the City, it’s easier for them,” he said.
“We really got a sense from City Council they were really partnering with us on this one.”
As winter takes hold in the city, Yates St. Taphouse is battening down the proverbial hatches on the outdoor deck with heaters, a tent, and a vinyl window to cover gaps and cut down crosswinds.
Moving forward, Turner says they’ll likely change their tent covering out for heavier material to protect the deck from any adverse weather.
Changes could be made permanent
The upside of all of this, according to Jeff Bray, is that downtown Victoria could be transformed for the better.
“It’s an opportunity for the city to look at a lot of their bylaw and regulations around the public realm, sidewalks and animation,” said Bray.
“This is an important aspect of keeping downtown alive and vibrant during the pandemic.”
He says that businesses are extending their licenses well into the new year, and that’s a smart move given the potential delay in vaccines.
Vaccines could begin rolling out as soon as March, but the Executive Director of the DVBA says that delivery will still lag behind as health experts focus on vaccinating the most vulnerable groups.
That’s a window of opportunity to make many winterized patios into a permanent Victoria institution, says Bray.
“These might be things that come permanent, that enhance our public realm,” he said.
“Just like cities in the US or Europe, why can’t we do that here? Victoria may be ready to have a really great patio culture, permanently.”
Turner agrees, and says that the other positive side of the pandemic has been a renewed connection between Victoria’s restaurants and the patrons they serve.
He says that going forward, he’ll do whatever he can to keep his patio and he’s hoping neighbouring restaurants try to pick up the idea too.
“One of the big things that I find is that up until the pandemic, we were all competitors,” said Turner.
“You worked on you. It was very specific, me against them. What I find moving forward is there has to be a level of cooperation.”