FORT ST. JOHN, B.C – Local bars and restaurants have adapted the best they could after the province announced its circuit breaker restrictions last month.
It’s been a week since Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced an extension to the public health order until May long weekend. The order, announced March 29th, includes restrictions to indoor dining, indoor faith services, and group fitness.
Since the announcement, local businesses like Beard’s Brewing and Montana’s have had to change how they operate, hoping to survive the onslaught of restrictions the pandemic has brought along.
To continue operating, Beard’s partnered with a local food truck to feed customers while on their new outdoor patio.
“It really forced us to immediately shift and create an outdoor space, which we’re still kind of evolving now that we know we have another couple weeks of it. To be honest, the most difficult aspect is that none of us has any control over the weather,” says Stephen Beard.
Despite being at the mercy of the city’s multiple winters and provincial restrictions, Beard says the brewery is doing well as people want to get out of their “caves”.
“We haven’t been pre-pandemic numbers at all, simply because we don’t have enough seats for that many. But yeah, we’ve seen a big uptake.”
A similar sentiment was expressed by local Montana’s owner Darren Thomson. The number of customers fluctuates due to the weather, but Montana’s patio resulted in “exponential growth”, says Thomson.
The restaurant was also able to transition to pick up and delivery with ease once the circuit breaker restrictions were announced. Like many restaurants, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Montan’s was shut down for over a month.
“We knew what we were doing and how to go about it [after last year],” says Thomson
Unfortunately, 25 workers were laid off during the original shut down. The restaurant currently has 17 employees compared to 33 pre-pandemic.
Four employees have been brought back on a part-time basis due to Montana’s opening a patio. The restaurant was able to get a temporary license for the patio, which cost Thomson around $2,000 to build.
“We only have that approval until the 31st of October, which is going to be way past my usable date.”
Both businesses have seen a fair amount of success with the patios, given the capacity they have to run at.
Beard says a new demographic has popped up at the brewery as well, with many families have stopped by on their bikes to grab some beer and food.
“We have a lot of people that are new customers simply tired of being trapped at home.”
“I felt pretty blessed, to be honest, that we were able to create a space, have our amazing locals come out and continue to enjoy because I think we are all feeling the impacts on our mental health and our overall well being,” adds Beard.
Can sales have also gone up for the brewery. Despite poor profit margins, Beard notes it’s never been about the money.
“We don’t have one of those swanky $200,000 canning systems. But, we’ve definitely seen an increase where people still want to enjoy the craft beers.”
To help B.C. businesses, the government announced a Circuit Breaker Business Relief Grant. The grant allows businesses to apply for up to $20,000 to help with expenses like employee wages, rent, maintenance and utilities. The province added $75 million to the grant on April 26th, bringing the total available to $125 million.
Many grants have been made available for businesses throughout the pandemic. The Fort St. John Chamber of Commerce even hired a liaison to assist businesses with the application process.
“The chamber did reach out and definitely helped us see what was available. Unfortunately, the only grant that we have been able to qualify for was for the circuit breaker,” says Beard.
He noted the brewery didn’t fit the criteria on other grants available but could access a loan and payroll subsidies.
Being a franchisee, Thomson says Montana’s provided his restaurant with rental assistance last year, but that’s the only financial assistance received.
“I have participated in all of those grant programs that are possible,” says Thomson.
Restaurants in BC are closed for indoor dining until May 25th.
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