COVID-19 restrictions mean big changes for Nunavut’s largest restaurant
Gallery Dining Room in Iqaluit now operating at about 30 per cent capacity
Nunavut has yet to see a confirmed case of COVID-19, but the pandemic has still managed to have a big impact on the territory’s largest restaurant.
The Gallery Dining Room at the Frobisher Inn in Iqaluit has taken a big financial hit since March, said manager Ray Pieries.
The dining room was completely shut down from March 13 until June 22, when the Government of Nunavut determined that bars and restaurants could reopen.
These establishments could operate at half-capacity and observe social distancing, and the last call for alcohol was set at 9 p.m.
The restriction on hours was lifted July 13.
However, the Gallery Dining Room is still only open for dinner nightly, and much has changed as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, Pieries said.
Take the menu, he said. Now diners are shown a barcode, which, when scanned with a smart phone, leads to an online menu. Or you can ask for a paper menu encased in a plastic sheath that’s wiped off after each use.
The menu offerings have also changed. There is a limited selection of pasta and seafood on the menu, Pieries said, because the restaurant continues to draw on its large store of food frozen after events such as the Nunavut mining symposium were cancelled due to the pandemic.
“And we can’t give straws because straws have to be individually wrapped. We can’t have salt and pepper shakers either because they are considered to be unsafe, so we have to give out separate little packets,” he said.
Hand sanitizer is strategically placed around the dining room.
The service provided by the wait staff has also changed: the server won’t reach in front of you to serve you your food, instead they ask you to take the plate from them. If you want to bring your leftovers home, you have to package them yourself, Pieries said.
As well, you can’t get up to greet people at other tables.
To keep diners stay two metres apart the tables are now spaced out, whereas the booths, put in not that long ago, have now become a hindrance to the room arrangement because they can’t be moved.
Right now, all this means the dining room is running at a third of its capacity, Pieries said.
“Our biggest challenge is that we have a certain amount of tables we can use due to social distancing,” he said.
There are only five tables for two, four tables for four, four booths for four and one table for six, which together offer a total capacity of fewer than 50 people.
And if a single person ends up seated at a table for four, that means even fewer diners, Pieries said.
Right now, two booths are also out of commission so there is only room for 42 diners, which means the dining room is now operating at much less than its normal capacity, he said.
“We’re not reaching our full potential,” he said. “I try to do two blocks of reservations every evening, one at 5 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., and another at 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. I can give the guests a two-hour time slot that way: I think two hours is more than fair for people to enjoy their meal.”
But Pieries said he struggles to seat people strategically to accommodate everyone: “It’s almost like a puzzle at each service,” he said.
And there are only two servers, except on weekends when the adjacent Baffin Room opens for another 20 diners and a third server comes in.
Some people also arrive without reservations, and it’s hard to turn them away, Pieries said, particularly since occupancy at Frobisher Inn is now higher.
“Despite COVID and our day-to-day trials, I try to provide the best quality in cocktails, service and making sure guests feel welcome back,” he said.
Some of his co-workers lost their jobs due to the lockdown and cuts to hours now in place.
Pieries said he hopes Nunavut will ease the restrictions to allow for a greater number of diners, larger meetings and reopening for breakfast and lunch.
“But people understand our situation and we decided to keep it until the Department of Health says we can open up 100 per cent,” he said.
For some restaurants, continuing restrictions may mean they have no option but to close: 60 per cent of Canadian restaurants could close permanently within three months, a recent Canadian Survey on Business Conditions found.
One Nunavut eatery has already closed: Cambridge Bay’s Kuugaq Cafe, which shut down last month.
(Correction: an earlier version of this story omitted to mention that the restrictions on the hours of restaurants and licensed establishments have not been in place since July 13.)