“While everyone’s hope is that we go back to something approaching normal — that convivial, fun, connected, and personal experience that used to be found in restaurants, where chefs were serving beautiful food on a plate and servers sharing their joy with guests — we also have to use some of the things we have learned when planning for the future,” says Stephen Beckta, owner of Beckta, Play, and Gezellig. “We have re-opened five different times in one way or another over the last 14 months,” he says.
For Beckta, this means incorporating some of the successful shifts of the past year. At first, he ducked and took cover. “My attitude was ‘We don’t do takeout. Fine dining doesn’t travel,’ ” he recalls. But then reality set in, along with the need to keep staff employed. One month later, with the help of Shopify and his friend Harley Finkelstein, he launched Curated by Beckta, which has seen 3,000 cases of fine wine and charcuterie fly out the door. He launched a monthly wine club with tastings and notes. And eventually he shifted his stance on takeout.
In 12 months, Beckta has learned the art of home film production and has made over 75 videos to accompany the 20,000 meal kits that have been delivered (as far away as Mont Ste-Marie ski resort). The team has also done virtual special events and corporate functions around Christmastime. These adaptations have allowed him to break even, pay staff and suppliers, and generally “keep the wheel spinning.”
“I believe that people have really embraced the meal kits and wine experiences at home,” he says. “People love learning tools and tricks at home. Of course, things are going to slow as restaurants open up, but I still think we’ll be doing 400 to 500 meals a week, which is more than regular lunch service.”
“It’s been painful emotionally and financially,” he says. “But what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. The last 15 months have been super-hard, but after 34 years in the business, on balance, I’d still choose to go into this industry.”
For the future? Beckta would like to see the Ontario government offer wholesale pricing on alcohol to the bar and restaurant industry. (Ontario is one of the few jurisdictions worldwide that does not.) “This would enable us to actually make some money, and suddenly the economics make sense,” he says. He also hopes to see the expanded patios made permanent.
As government subsidies end, fall 2021 is likely to be the pinch point for many restaurants. “When the foot comes off the gas, we’ll see if the car can still run. Please, please dine out in a way you haven’t done before,” implores Beckta.