The last face-to-face interview I conducted for Leaside Life was at the Wild Wing on Bayview at the end of February 2020. “The Art of the Turnaround” appeared in the April issue. On March 17, 2020, the government of Ontario declared its first state of emergency during the pandemic and Toronto followed six days later. We all know the rest of the story thus far… yet we still don’t know exactly how or when the pandemic will truly be behind us, nor the long-term toll. Restaurants Canada has reported that since March, 2020, more than 10,000 restaurants are currently shuttered across Canada, and it is expected that nearly half will close permanently.
Statistics Canada reported a devastating 37% drop in Ontario food services and drinking place sales from $2.58 billion in February, 2020 to $1.61 billion for the same month in 2021. Understandably, I got concerned when I heard rumours that the Wild Wing business was for sale. So, I picked up the phone and called savvy restaurateurs Rajan and Ritu, the risk-taking couple who jumped in to lead the original turnaround late in 2019. The first point of note, the business is not for sale, “unless the number is right!” The second point of note, although the “science” of the virus has trumped the “art” in the turnaround effort, there is simply no replacement for experience when it comes to dealing with a crisis.
During the period from April to October, 2020, Rajan reported sales from delivery and takeout remained strong. He attributes this to the financial support individuals received from the government at the time. He also pointed to the fact that many Leasiders limited their travel and remained in the ’hood last summer. Patio service was in full demand and really “saved the day, plus our burgers and flatbreads are every bit as good as our wings.” Unfortunately, the good times did not last. Since October, business has been much slower and patios have been shut down.
Compounding their stress is the fact that the Bayview Wild Wing business did not qualify for any government financial assistance because revenue in 2019 was minimal before the couple bought the business. In this case, the successful makings of the turnaround were evident and a decent Q1-2020 was cause for celebration before the lockdown. That celebration was short-lived, though, since the reality of the situation meant their business did not qualify for any financial support as 2020 revenues were stronger than those booked by the previous ownership group.
To lose patience is to lose the battle
— Mahatma Gandhi
How has the business managed to survive? Without hesitation, Rajan points to having “amazing support from the community, equally amazing staff (shout out to Priyanka, Ash, Charisma, Gail, Christiana and Victoria), an extremely understanding landlord, and the ability to remain calm and be patient.” Rajan explained that “the restaurant business is not rocket science but it’s also not an easy business. We’re not really discovering something new. It’s pretty standard to get good food out as quick as you can with a smile on your face, provide good service, and maintain a high level of cleanliness.”
Their years of experience gave them the confidence to be patient. They realized that “if you can stay open while others are closing up, then there is a good chance you will pick up that additional business because other venues are closed.” They were also extremely focused on keeping the facility clean and implementing the COVID-19 protocols. “If I unfortunately have a sick employee who comes to work and spreads it, it’s a disaster because people will never forget that,” said Rajan. “I mean, the amount of sanitizer and so many chemicals and disinfectants that we’ve invested in to make sure that people feel safe is crazy but necessary.”
One challenge I feel is worth noting is food delivery services. “We know we can’t beat Uber Eats and we can’t beat Skip the Dishes because they have the scale and top-of-mind awareness. But what we can do and did is to launch our new online ordering platform this month so there is no need to speak with anyone at the store. Pickup is safe, reliable and efficient.” Should you absolutely need delivery, Uber Eats and Skip the Dishes take 20-25% from his bottom line. If we order directly from the Wild Wing website, their business can significantly reduce its delivery costs. In addition, you avoid the ‘markup’ applied by these delivery services. It’s a small thing for us to change our behaviour, but it truly does make a difference for the local business we choose to support. Local Leaside businesses are doing all they can to survive.
Rajan still feels there’s good reason to remain optimistic because vaccinations are in full swing and a new patio season is just around the corner. A frosty beverage, on a sun-filled patio, together with friends. One can dream.
Have a favourite patio in Leaside? Do you think the 15% cap on food delivery service charges in the recently approved “Supporting Local Restaurants Act” will make a difference? Is the Uber Eats Pass subscription worth paying $9.99 per month to eliminate delivery fees and receive a discount at select restaurants?