Charcoal Group’s CEO Jody Palubiski explains why a pandemic isn’t derailing their Beertown expansion plans
By Tom Nightingale
For some restaurateurs, such a devastating event as the COVID-19 pandemic may curtail plans and cause serious worries for the future. For the Ontario-based Charcoal Group and their Beertown brand, though, thanks to careful consideration – and some quirks of timing – it’s just a speedbump on the road.
CEO Jody Palubiski recently explained how the group has mitigated for the firestorm of 2020. Here, in part two of RestoBiz’s chat with the exec., he sheds some light on what you can expect from Charcoal over the next few months.
Resilience in Guelph
Right now, Charcoal has 13 restaurants across the province, including six under the banner of their latest brand, Beertown. The 13th of those, a Beertown location in Guelph, opened just before the pandemic’s full effects on the foodservice and hospitality industries became clear.
“What was really positive for us after being closed for three months was the way our communities rallied and supported each of our businesses, to see the resilience that they had,” Palubiski explains. “In the case of Guelph, we had only opened a restaurant 10 days before we had to close it for COVID for three months. So your question is, what happens when you open the door? Will people come back?”
That’s a natural concern you’d expect a restaurant exec. to have during such a crucial period for a new location. But, Palubiski acknowledges with huge gratitude, Guelph’s hungry population helped them through. In fact, he was taken aback by what he described as the resilience of the new location.
“If you’d have told me we’d have the number of guests coming through our doors this summer that we did have, I’d probably have slept better a few nights! So that gives you a lot of confidence and really sets your tone – let’s not lose perspective on the big-picture goals, who we are, what got us here, what’s gonna get us out of here.”
The Charcoal chief notes that over time – before Ontario’s latest uptick in cases, at least, and the heightened restrictions that have come along with that – diners and patrons have become more confident again with dining in. There will always be a certain level of concern and fear, at least for the foreseeable future, but things have been looking up.
A bright horizon
In the next few months, Charcoal expects to open its 7th and 8th Beertown locations, in Barrie and downtown Toronto. They’ve been long in the works.
“There’s been a few questions about why we’re choosing to expand during the middle of a pandemic,” Palubiski says, “but Barrie has been on the go for probably 3.5 years to get to this point and now we have a tentative opening date of November. And now we’re building right in downtown Toronto at the corner of University and Wellington and that’s probably been 2 to 2.5 years in development.”
It is, of course, hugely difficult to predict a solid timeline during a year like 2020, when all bets are off and the landscape shifts so alarmingly. But things have largely stayed on track for the new Beertown developments, helped by the fact that the timing of the construction shutdown in Ontario was pretty neat, as things like that go.
“At one point construction sites were closed down for weeks, which wasn’t a bad thing – it was at the time when the complete lockdown was happening. Obviously, when you’re building these things you always have money going out with a real sense of uncertainty as to whether we’re looking at a month, six months, a year until we can actually open. So the idea that we were completely shut down in current operations and were building to in fact press pause was pretty advantageous at the time.”
Designed to withstand
COVID-19 obviously brings its own challenges and requirements as far as restaurant layout and operations go. Many restaurants have pivoted to takeout and curbside service, some out of sheer survival instinct. Palubiski notes that Charcoal may have considered other design options to better facilitate those options were they starting the construction stage now rather than nearing the end of it, the likes of adapted packaging areas and so forth. “It certainly has made us start looking at ways to organize and drive takeout business and curbside pickup so we formatted things differently in our restaurants while we were closed for COVID-19.”
Nevertheless, he’s confident the new Beertown spots are set up for success.
“These two restaurants had probably been designed 18 months ago and so there wasn’t a lot to change internally, certainly not a lot of time to change as construction had already begun at this point. That said, those post-COVID protocols, systems, standards get folded right into the physical layout and so that’s not going to be an issue. For now, these were designed long before COVID and we’re pretty happy with them.”
A busy fall on the cards
With the altered timelines created by COVID-19, Charcoal now looks set to open its new Beertown locations in Barrie and downtown Toronto within a few weeks of one another. For Palubiski, that’s pretty much ideal. As he explains, he views the fall as an ideal time to get a new restaurant off the ground.
“I love opening restaurants in the fall, opening and having some momentum carrying us through the Christmas rush and then January, when people are kind of cooling off a bit. And then of course you get to March and April and you open your patios for the first time and it’s like a second honeymoon.”
As Palubiski previously discussed, the extended patio programs that have been implemented this summer and look set to stick around in some areas of Ontario have been a huge boost for the restaurant industry. In fact, it was key factor in Barrie’s appeal as a destination.
“When COVID-19 started, the mayor of Barrie was one of the very first to come out and start touting the expansion of the patios, weeks before we’d heard it from anyone else, that I know of. It was this real sense of value and appreciation that you just don’t get from every other municipality and that really cemented it for us.”
That in itself, though, brings questions and key decisions as restaurateurs try to predict how things will look in a few weeks’ and months’ time.
“I started to get quotes on covered patios, this is an example of one of those decisions,” he explains. “The question becomes do you commit to and further invest in those types of covered patio systems? On the flip side, if we keep seeing counts go up, is there a lockdown imminent? At that point, you’d have preferred to keep those resources in the bank to keep people employed etc. So those are the decisions you’re trying to understand: what’s at stake and what are the various directions these could take?”
Still, though, the potential for growth and expansion exist during hard times like these. Palubiski recalls navigating with Charcoal the devastating economic crisis of 2008, a time which, he says, led in part to the creation of the Beertown brand as the group assessed the lay of the land and how to proceed.
Could something similar happen here, over a decade later? “It wouldn’t surprise me if we created a new brand and had something else coming out of this. Our businesses have continued to thrive, Beertown’s shown a tremendous ability to adapt throughout this. I can see us continuing to invest and grow in that particular business and brand but I can see us branching out and taking the learnings and playing it. Where’s the puck going? What do we do about that?”
For now, Beertown’s expansion from 6 to 8 locations is certainly not a bad end result as far as growth during a crisis. But Palubiski hopes there’s even more on the horizon, noting that Charcoal is already getting calls from landlords about potential opportunities down the line. “We’re certainly reviewing those and evaluating them. We’re not jumping at things too quickly but certainly more growth is something we have our eye on.”
Part one of RestoBiz’s interview with Jody Palubiski can be found here.