Restaurateur Grant van Gameren on coping during the pandemic and the future of Toronto’s food scene

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“Without more financial help, many of us won’t survive”: Restaurateur Grant van Gameren on coping during the pandemic and the future of Toronto’s food scene

Grant van Gameren thought running nine restaurants and a catering company was stressful—until he started not running them. After closing down all his locations—Bar Raval, Bar Isabel, Tennessee Tavern, PrettyUgly, El Rey, Rosalinda, Quetzal, Tennessee Tavern and Bar Piquette—in mid-March, one of the city’s most prolific restaurateurs has spent the last few weeks innovating, dealing with landlords and trying not to grind his teeth down.

In a lot of ways, the most stressful part of this whole situation was before we shut down. It was incredibly difficult to make that decision—to pinpoint when keeping my staff employed became more of a threat to their safety than laying them off was to their security. People who work in restaurants don’t tend to have a ton of padding in their bank accounts, so I wanted to keep money coming in for them for as long as possible—even when it became obvious that closing was a matter of when and not if. We beat the Ontario government to it by a day and a half, closing all nine restaurants along with my catering company on the same day, March 14. It was actually a relief to end the weeks of uncertainty, but it was also the worst day of my professional life. I had to lay off more than 300 people, myself included.

I coordinated with the managers at all my locations to get the message to our staff. It was tricky, because at that point we knew very little about what the future would hold. This was before CERB was introduced, so we gave them information on how to go about collecting EI, which isn’t a great option for people who make most of their income in tips. We had our staff come by the restaurants to collect the food that we weren’t going to be able to serve: blood sausage from Bar Isabel, whole fish from Quetzal, marinated chickens, fresh herbs and vegetables. Our bakers took home sourdough starters to baby them during isolation. Everyone wanted to know how long it was going to last. Of course, I didn’t have the answer, but at that point I was thinking two, three weeks, maybe a month. The magnitude of the situation hadn’t sunk in yet.

Being the guy in charge, it’s my job to exude confidence even when I don’t feel it. Nobody wants to see the captain losing it when the boat starts leaking. That doesn’t mean I’m not freaking out on my own time. I quit smoking back in January, but I’m back at it because of the stress. At one point, I was wearing my mouthguard during the day so that I didn’t grind my teeth down. There have been a couple of times when I’ve had to pull over at the side of the road because I thought I was having an anxiety attack. I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t even collect my thoughts. Some mornings I wake up wishing I had a different job, where I only had to worry about myself and my family—so I could collect CERB and do my best to ride this out. Instead I’m working non-stop to figure out how I can save 10 businesses. I’m meeting with my partners, I’m thinking through new concepts and at this point I’ve probably spent thousands of hours on the phone with my landlords.

In late March, I wrote a letter to a bunch of my landlords. It was basically a plea. Rent was due on April 1, and at that point there was still no government relief program in place. I asked them to consider waiving rent during the lockdown so that we had a better chance of coming back financially healthy. My hope was that we could all adopt a mentality of short-term loss for long-term gain. One landlord agreed to freeze rent entirely. I almost cried when that happened. Others have tried their best to be supportive, and some aren’t willing to budge. I’ve been locked out of one of them—like, actual padlocks on the doors. We’re trying to come to some kind of agreement, but I don’t know whether it’s going to be possible.

The government’s commercial rent relief program isn’t working, because it’s up to landlords to apply and not all of them are doing that. I get that they have their reasons, but I also wonder who they think will occupy these empty spaces if all the restaurants shut down? Even Doug Ford is pressuring landlords to protect their tenants. Something has to give. The way I see it, restaurants are like the heart of the body: we supply food to our customers and jobs to our community—servers, suppliers, farmers, drivers. We pay mortgages, we pay taxes that are higher than our profits. And we have lost more during the pandemic than almost any other industry. Without more financial help, many of us won’t survive. It’s that simple.

I’m not an economist, so I don’t know what the answer is. I know that it’s not reopening at 20 or 30 per cent capacity, which is an idea that’s being floated around. Does that mean restaurant owners will only have to pay 20 or 30 per cent of rents and mortgage? Our operating costs? That kind of thinking shows that our government needs to spend more time consulting with restaurant owners. In this industry we barely turn a profit even when we’re operating at 100 per cent capacity. I worry about reopening too quickly with these half measures in place. What if we have to close again in a month when a second wave of the virus hits? It’s too much insecurity. For now, I’m focused on reinventing my businesses so they work for our current situation and can hopefully evolve as things get better.

In early April, we launched a pop-up of our burger joint Harry’s Charbroiled inside Bar Raval for curbside pickup and delivery. That seemed like the best way to use that space, and it’s been really successful so far. We’ve sold 15,000 burgers in the last two months. We launched a merch shop the other day and sold 250 shirts and hoodies in just one morning. There’s a lot of loyalty and support coming from our customers. We reopened Rosalinda and El Rey for takeout and delivery using third-party apps because the dishes at those restaurants—tacos, empanadas—are well-suited to the format. I’m definitely biting my tongue about a lot of the negative things I’ve said about delivery apps in the past. My feeling was that going to a restaurant was about the experience, which isn’t something you can just put into a takeout container. I still believe that, but delivery has saved us as we regroup and figure out what’s next.

Bar Piquette will reopen as a wine shop where customers can pick up bottles not available at the LCBO, as well as some prepared food, including our semi-famous mortadella sandwich. We’re saying goodbye to Tennessee Tavern, which is tough. I loved that place but I just don’t think heavy, Eastern European comfort food is the best concept right now. I wish we could have had a sendoff: one more night of all-you-can-eat pierogies. In its place will be Gianna’s Pies and Patties, a place for burgers and Detroit-style pizza, which we don’t have a lot of in Toronto, or at least not in the west end. It’ll be a neighbourhood spot where people can grab a beer and a burger or a pizza and watch the game—whenever sports come back.

At Quetzal, we’re launching a second concept out of the same space called Don Pollo, which is a nickname for the guys who sell Sinaloa-style grilled chicken by the side of the road in Mexico and South and Central America. The thinking is that we’ve got this giant open flame that we’re not able to use in an empty restaurant, so we might as well do something with it. We’ll also do Parisian potatoes and some other sides. It’s casual, it’s portable; people can pick up some chicken and sides and go for a picnic. That’s where I’ll be working next week. The pandemic has been humbling in that sense: I’m flipping burgers again, I’m grilling chicken.

With Bar Isabel and Raval, we’re taking a wait-and-see approach. Believe me, I would give anything to reopen them, but I’m also thinking about what exactly we would be reopening—would they even be the same anymore? People come to restaurants to satisfy their hunger for food, but also to satisfy an emotional hunger—a craving for social connections and beautiful spaces. When people walk into Bar Raval, they literally fondle the woodwork. It’s a place where you squeeze in together at tables and chat with strangers, maybe even share a plate of shishito peppers or a tin of Spanish conservas. That’s the romance of restaurants, and I don’t know if it can be recreated if the servers are wearing masks and gloves, or if everyone is separated by plexiglass. I’m trying to focus on the positive. The innovator in me thrives in challenging times, but it’s also really sad.

—As told to Courtney Shea