Kicking dining rooms to the curb: How Toronto restaurants are evolving to become less dependent on diners

As those in Toronto’s restaurant industry continue to wonder how much longer outdoor patios can stay open, some businesses instead are turning to more winter-proof ways to bring in revenue. Even with Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s recent announcement that indoor dining can resume with restrictions later this month, it’s not necessarily going to be enough to keep the bills paid, nor will all restaurants opt in out of safety concerns.

Early into the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurant owners got creative with their offerings. Some turned into grocery stores when supermarket shelves were empty. Others sold meal kits to recreate restaurant-quality dishes. Another teamed up with a local theatre to offer a stay-at-home dinner and show package. Now more restaurant owners are pivoting as they think about their business long term.

Bangkok Garden at 18 Elm St., just east of Yonge St. in the downtown core, offered regular takeout and delivery service since March and opened an online shop where customers could buy Thai meal kits and the restaurant’s house made curry pastes. But in early November it launched another concept: its own food truck with a new menu that includes a red curry Thai poutine, mango salad bowls and pad Thai spring rolls by longtime chef William Thetsombandith.

“This makes our food more mobile. Right now it’s parked outside the restaurant where we have a patio but down the road people can rent it for an outdoor, prepackaged lunch for an office,” said restaurant spokesperson Nora Ursulescu. She says it’s a way to work around current dining restrictions, and take the restaurant on the road without having to pay additional delivery fees from food apps.

Nearby on Elizabeth Street, just south of Dundas Street West, the family-run, decades-old Yueh Tung Hakka restaurant also just launched a side project: selling jars of its chili chicken sauce at $ 8 a pop (or 3 for $ 20) for home cooks wanting to replicate the restaurant’s dishes.

“Our family had the idea for it 20 years ago but started working on it last year,” co-owner Jeanette Liu said. “A lot goes into putting together a product, not just the recipe but also getting the labels right, the nutrition count, getting the jars. When COVID hit, it became a necessity because we weren’t able to reach our customers who didn’t live or work downtown. We were getting messages from people in Ajax and Oshawa but we couldn’t deliver to them, so that accelerated the process of getting the sauce finished.”

The Thai poutine from the new Bangkok Garden food truck, currently parked outside the restaruant on Elm Stree in the downtown core.

Liu says the pandemic brought an unexpected challenge: a North American shortage of glass jars as grocery sales surged and other restaurants started offering retail products. As a result, the restaurant had to switch from the original 270mL size to 250mL just after the first batch of sauces sold out. Liu says an online store where the sauce can be purchased will launch soon and the company is working with local food shops to stock the sauce. Two other products, a Manchurian sauce and a Hakka chili vinegar, are also in the works.

There’s also the ghost kitchen concept: food businesses that prepare food out of a commercial kitchen but don’t have a physical restaurant dining space. Instead, the restaurant only exists through apps where food is ordered for pickup or delivery. It’s a way for a food business to introduce a new concept and menu without having to build a new restaurant.

The Kinka Family restaurant group, which operates Japanese restaurants such as Kinton Ramen, JaBistro and Kinka Izakaya across the GTA, as well as in Quebec and the U.S., just introduced four virtual food businesses: Tokyo Sando & Chicken (wings and fried chicken sandwiches), JapaSando & Co. (Japanese sandwiches), Hashiya Japanese Pasta Bar and Aburi Bunz (blowtorched Japanese hot dogs). All the food is prepared in the kitchens of Kinka’s restaurants and currently ordered through DoorDash and Uber Eats.

Company spokesperson Stella Yu says that third-party delivery platforms were already driving a lot of the business for their restaurants and since the company was already paying for the service, it figured why not expand the offerings. The company is also working on its own ordering platform to offset some of the commission fees from the apps. Coming up with a different restaurant concept also allowed the company to offer foods that are better suited for takeout than say, the small sharing plates of an izakaya. The goal is to also attract new diners and drive up business to keep people employed.

“In March a lot of people lost their jobs and we don’t want to repeat that. Having another concept means we can keep giving hours and shifts,” Yu said. “Before the pandemic it was more about opening more locations, but now it’s shifting because we don’t know if indoor dining would shut down again.”

Sandwiches from Tokyo Sando & Chicken, one of four new virtual restaurant concepts from the Kinka Family restaurant group.

David Hopkins, president of the Toronto-based restaurant consulting firm The Fifteen Group, says while he has seen a lot of restaurants develop virtual restaurants or ghost kitchens, the challenge is brand recognition. “Will you order from a burger place on Uber Eats when you’ve never heard of it before compared to the other 10 places you know?” Hopkins said. “The ghost kitchen concept has always been challenging because you’re creating a brand that didn’t exist, but we’ll see how it plays out.”

He advises clients to stay on brand and stick to what their customers know them for when it comes to new ventures.

While the pandemic brought out the creativity in cooks and restaurant owners, pivoting to a new venture is a costly move especially when most restaurants are bringing in a fraction of what they normally make. The licence to operate the food truck at Bangkok Garden alone costs $ 1,200, for example.

Jamieson Kerr, proprietor of the Queen and Beaver Public House, at 35 Elm St. nearby Bangkok Garden, estimates he spent $ 10,000 of his own money to launch a savoury pie business to bring in extra revenue and keep his kitchen staff employed.

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“We reopened the restaurant for takeout in May but I knew it wouldn’t sustain us. The restaurants that were known for takeout before the pandemic are doing well, but not for new startups,” he said. As a result, he launched The Q&B Pie Co. selling individual-sized pies with fillings such as steak, carrot and stout as well as a vegan option of butternut squash and coconut curry. He’s hoping to also offer wine pairings with each order.

“It’s a fairly expensive outlay. The takeout boxes are $ 3,000, a new website is $ 2,500, a vacuum sealer is $ 3,000,” he said. “It’s just what I had to do. I think there is longevity in this and I’m investing in the future and not just something in the next four months.”

Japanese-style spaghetti from Hashiya Japanese Pasta Bar, one of four virtual restaurant concepts from the Kinka Family restaurant group.

The pies are ordered through The Q&B Pie Co. site and Kerr has been delivering them, three days a week, across the GTA. An average of 50 pies were sold each week during the summer. In September it went up to about 100 to 150 pies. Currently 300 pies are produced a week. Kerr hopes to reach 500 eventually.

“This just goes to show that you can never sit on your laurels. To think we’d be in a situation like this is crazy, but I believe we’ll be stronger,” Kerr said. “I’m meeting people in neighbourhoods I’ve never been to before and getting business from across the city. Hopefully once we come back, we’ll be busier than ever. I haven’t had a day off in three months, but it’s all we can do.”

Karon Liu

TORONTO STAR