Why St. Louis Bar & Grill is taking a “better safe than sorry” approach to welcoming diners back to its facilities
By Rachel Debling
For St. Louis Bar & Grill CEO Brent Poulton, Toronto’s move into the second stage of its phased reopening plan, slated for on June 24, has been a long time coming.
Still, he admits determining the right steps to take to satisfy both government and customer expectations has been difficult to navigate.
“More is going to be better than less, all of the time,” he explained to RestoBiz at a June 17 event showcasing the precautions taken at the brand’s 2050 Yonge Street flagship store. “It’s that trust factor that we are trying to instill in [our customers] every single day.”
Poulton and staff walked members of the media through the measures the brand has implemented to ensure the safety and satisfaction of guests, not only at its original location but at many of its cross-Canada restaurants that have already begun to welcome back customers. Its East Coast outlets, for example, are a few weeks into serving guests on their patios, and while much of Ontario reopened in that capacity last week, Toronto and some of its surrounding areas have lagged behind, due to higher rates of COVID-19 and greater population densities.
All of its locations, for instance, have instituted a role called Chief Sanitation Officer, a hands-on position which will be responsible for ensuring all areas are cleaned and disinfected between guests; they will also be the only staff members to remove soiled plates and utensils from tables so that wait staff are only coming into contact with items fresh from the kitchen. The chain’s standard menus have been replaced with paper versions that will be recycled after every guest, and for customers who don’t want to handle a physical sheet, QR codes posted on each table will lead them to an online menu when snapped. Its 2050 Yonge Street location has installed high plexiglass partitions around all booths, creating safe spaces for diners, though some of the restaurant’s locations in other jurisdictions have selected shorter barriers, based on their specific needs.
“It’s about creating not just the perception but the reality that we are trying to go above and beyond to make sure you know we are doing everything we can to keep you safe,” Poulton said of the precautions being taken. “That’s it in a nutshell.”
Other elements of their reopening plan include providing servers with hand sanitizer, which they will apply in front of guests as they greet them at their tables, as well as checking the temperatures of staff members as they come into the building. In this day and age, there is no such thing as overkill, Poulton believes, and the brand isn’t shy about advertising its precautionary measures. In fact, many of the changes that were included in St. Louis’ reopening plan were born from a two-week survey that the company conducted in a strategic partnership with Molson, Labatt, and its other hospitality industry connections. Overall, Poulton reports they found most Canadians polled are eager to get back into their restaurants.
Though St. Louis is ready, willing, and able to return to business as usual, Poulton recognizes not all restaurants are in the same position. Smaller independents, businesses that command larger footprints, and those with higher rent or inflexible landlords may be wary to commit large amounts of money to the upgrading of their facilities, especially since how long these measure will be required or even what is needed is vague at best, and rapidly changing. In light of this, he has been working with a select group of Canadian restaurant brands and leaders to lobby the government at a national level for extensions of the wage and rent subsidy programs being offered to businesses.
Coming together as an industry is important for all involved, no matter the size of the company, he explained. “I think a lot of what people don’t understand is the margins in this business aren’t tremendous,” he told RestoBiz. “You are talking 4 to 6 per cent, 4 to 7 per cent, for a lot of the industry. Well, when you start looking at rent being the same, a minimization of people that you can have in [your facility] to 50 per cent, an increase in takeout through third party [companies] that are taking anywhere from 20 to 30 per cent after tax – well, the math doesn’t work.”
With over a million Canadian employed in the sector and over 800,000 currently laid off, it’s an issue that affects more than just restaurant owners, Poulton noted, and the group he is working with to impact change at the federal level is in the process of putting together an official letter stating their case that they will present to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Above all, Poulton believes that the Canadian restaurant industry will return to its original glory, thanks to the workers within it and the people who support it.
“If you want the greatest opportunity for a study of human behaviour, work in the restaurant or bar industry,” he laughed when asked about a potential resistance from customers to returning to the way things once were. “It really doesn’t matter how many little Amazon boxes you can order to your front door, or how many restaurant meals you can order, people are not built to be cooped up. We are social animals. We crave socialization, we crave personal interaction and that sense of routine and normalcy. We are creatures of habit. And we are not going to change human behaviour overnight.” And when its clientele are ready to sink their teeth into St. Louis’ famous wings from a prime seat on their (socially distanced) patio, Poulton and his team will be ready for them.