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Portrait of Resilience and Perseverance – Don Cherry’s Tale of COVID Survival

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One of the most challenging industries in which to have long-lasting, sustainable success is the restaurant and food service business. Changing tastes of consumers, economic uncertainty, high overhead and attracting and retaining good staff all contribute to the difficulties owners face in normal circumstances. Now throw a global pandemic into the mix, and the challenges become as numerous as stress levels rise higher.

Resiliency, flexibility, adaptability, and no small amount of courage are hallmarks of good restaurant management at any time. During the now 18-month long COVID-19 crisis, these traits have become necessities for survival. Fortunately, they are traits that the owners of Bradford’s Don Cherry’s Jason Farrugia and Eric Fex have in abundance.

Keeping their wits, being able to pivot core elements of their business model on a dime, being unafraid to take risks and taking advantage of programs and services offered by the Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury, especially the temporary patio program, has meant not just the survival of a small business but the jobs that go with it. The Don Cherry’s patio has, for a second summer, become a much-needed community gathering space. Having a place to visit with friends and family, enjoy good food and superlative hospitality, out in the warm fresh air of summer has made the pandemic experience that much more bearable for many Bradford residents.

2021 marks the second year of the BWG Patio Program, which was created specifically to help the restaurant and food service industry mitigate, to some degree, the potentially catastrophic effects of the restrictions and protocols necessarily put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic “by permitting an increase in their serving space to safely accommodate additional patrons.”

This year’s program began April 1 and runs until Nov. 1, 2021. Twenty-two businesses took advantage of the Patio Program, representing a broad cross section of types of restaurants, as well as locations throughout the BWG community. In order to participate in the program, candidates filled out an application located at https://www.gotobwg.ca/patio, and when approved, worked closely with various town staff to ensure the patios met all necessary permitting and planning regulations. There are no fees associated with the application. The only costs are those associated with constructing/maintaining the patios and increased staffing, both of which were usually offset very quickly by increased business, as Fex can attest.

“Once we were able to put a patio together, that was a total game changer. We already had a small patio and actually we were planning on renovating it before COVID hit. One day last spring we were just walking around outside the restaurant, and we said, “let’s build a big patio.’ Jason got out his tape measure and measured up our front parking lot. I thought it was impossible, that we’d basically be doubling the size of the restaurant and that some tables would be too far away. But he convinced me it would work, and here we are on our second summer, and we have found incredible success with the patio we built,” Fex explained.

“Even before the patio program, we always got great support from the [town’s economic development department]. But the patio has been so successful for us. The community loves it, and it really gave us an opportunity to transform what would just be a parking lot into a space where we’re kind of celebrating community and getting back together.”

For the first months of the COVID lockdown in 2020, Don Cherry’s went all take out and delivery, a huge change in the business model for Fex and Farrugia, but a necessary one. Prior to March 2020, less than five per cent of Don Cherry’s business came from take out. Moving to this model meant changes to food preparation, packaging and especially the menus.

“We just hit the ground running. Jason and I started taking the phone calls and we started to acquire new packaging to go with the different dishes and we turned big time onto Skip the Dishes and Uber Eats and did our best to pivot. Within days, not even a week, Jason and I were not enough. We needed more staff to sustain the business we were doing, and eventually we had 10 people working and turned the restaurant into a take-out place. It was challenging for sure. We wondered about different family dinners. What do people want for take out? They’re not coming in here and ordering their normal beer and wings; what does a family of five want to put on the table tonight? So, we created a menu that we felt the people wanted and found a decent amount of success during what we call the dark days of COVID,” he said.

When the patio opened, business was so brisk that they had to halt take out orders for nearly a month last summer because they didn’t have enough food to meet the exceptional demand, Fex said. Eventually they found a happy medium and take-out was reinstituted and continues this summer.

“We’re definitely back in the takeout game now, but at the beginning it was overwhelming, but a great problem to have. There were times we were here on a Monday morning waiting for trucks to come in so we could have food to prepare that day,” Fex said.

The COVID pandemic has proved to be a crucible for small business owners, with those in the restaurant and hospitality business particularly hard hit. But the example of the two owners of Don Cherry’s and so many others, the way they pivoted to take on the challenges head on, were fearless but also resolute in innovating and adapting, and who were willing to reach out and accept the help offered to them by the Town of BWG, can’t help but inspire.

Don Cherry’s is located at 100 Dissette Street. Visit http://doncherrysbradford.com for more information on hours, menu, take out and delivery.

BWG staff are in the process of organizing a job fair in conjunction with Contact Employment Services specifically for the restaurant industry to help them hire and retain staff, which has been identified as a challenge in the wake of the pandemic. Interested businesses are asked to reach out to express their interest in such an endeavour to ecdev@townofbwg.com.

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