The opening of P.E.I.’s borders to visitors from Atlantic Canada in July following full pandemic border controls in the spring did not provide the hoped-for boost for three restaurateurs contacted by CBC News .
“The bubble didn’t really bring in any extra. We had a little, but not a whole lot,” said Rose Viaene, who operates the Chuckwagon BBQ Pit on the Trans-Canada Highway, not far from the Wood Islands ferry terminal.
Things looked pretty good at first for Viaene. She opened her seasonal business in May, earlier than usual, sensing that people wanted to get out after weeks of COVID-19 lockdown.
They were kept busy with takeout and car hop service.
But the summer business relies heavily on ferry traffic, and that did not materialize. Sales actually fell. Viaene estimates her July and August business was down 70 per cent from last year. She has reduced openings to four days a week, but sometimes sees fewer than 10 cars in a day.
Some suffering more than others
That performance is far worse than might be expected given numbers for restaurant sales for June released by Statistics Canada earlier this week. They showed total sales for P.E.I. restaurants down just 28.8 per cent in June compared to 2019.
But some types of restaurants suffered much more than others. Full-service restaurants are in a much worse position than limited-service ones. By June, sales at limited-service restaurants were almost on a par with numbers for 2019, while full-service places were seeing about half the normal business.
Kevin Murphy, president and CEO of Murphy Hospitality Group, which runs several restaurants in Charlottetown, estimates the group’s sales were down 50 to 60 per cent in the summer months.
Murphy, who has 40 years of experience in the industry, said other operators whose restaurants rely on table service are telling him they are in the same situation, but he is not hearing that from places more focused on drive-thru and delivery.
“The fast-food places that remained open and the drive-thrus did very well, because people were more comfortable going through drive-thrus,” said Murphy.
Even with a strong delivery market, Fatima Hernandez, front-of-house manager for Khoaw Pon and Crafters Burgers in downtown Charlottetown, said her restaurants struggled in the early going.
“Lunch is a big deal for us. At the beginning it was a big loss, you know; everyone was really scared of coming out or even ordering online,” said Hernandez.
At some moments, you’d think: ‘Maybe we aren’t going to make it.’ But we managed. It was hard. It was really hard.– Fatima Hernandez, of Khoaw Pon and Crafters Burgers
One customer told her he was scared to order from anywhere for the first three weeks.
“At some moments, you’d think: ‘Maybe we aren’t going to make it.’ But we managed. It was hard. It was really hard.”
Hernandez said her business for July and August has improved, down only 30 to 35 per cent, but she said it’s not tourists. It is mostly Islanders who are just getting more comfortable with ordering online, curbside pickup, or stopping in for lunch.
Hernandez is hoping the Burger Love launch in September will get people out again, and maybe make them that much more comfortable with restaurant dining once more.
Long-term future in question
Murphy is not so optimistic. Fall Flavours and the P.E.I. Marathon are cancelled, there will be no motorcoach traffic, and major hotels in the downtown remain closed.
He noted many restaurants are closing early for the season, and others did not open at all this year. He is concerned some may not reopen and others will be forced to close — and that will have a long-term impact on the province’s tourism industry.
“There’s going to be places that can’t survive,” he said.
“My worry is what we’ve built over the years, the product we have here, the experience we have here and all the unique little places we have here — it’s not going to be the same.”
For its part, the Chuckwagon will remain open until October as it usually does, said Viaene.
“I’ve got to try to recoup what I didn’t get this summer. It’s been a trying year, for sure,” she said.
“It’s going to be a very lean winter. It’s survival mode, is what we call it.”