This August long weekend is the first one in several years that Ryan Moore won’t be working around the clock.
In a typical summer his restaurant chain, Ritz Caribbean Foods, would be flooded with partiers from the popular Toronto Caribbean Carnival, formerly known as Caribana. Three of his seven locations are downtown along Yonge Street.
“We usually open Friday morning and serve food non-stop until Monday night,” says Moore, adding he would normally hire extra staff for his busiest weekend. “It was great business. We certainly miss that right now.”
For the first time in its 53-year history, the festival celebrating Caribbean culture will not have a vibrant physical presence across the city. The annual parade was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, replaced by online events such as panel discussions, cooking classes and makeup workshops plus livestreaming of local parties at torontocarnival.ca.
For Toronto restaurants and bars, which are just starting to allow patrons indoors with the city reaching Stage 3 of the reopening process on Friday, the absence of the annual street festival will hurt financially.
“It’s terrible for Toronto as a whole,” says Moore, “but we have no choice except to keep going. That’s how we survive.”
Simone Lawrence, owner of Simone’s Caribbean Restaurant on the Danforth, says her business would normally expect a 10 per cent bump over the long weekend, even though it’s far from the carnival’s prime locations. She adds that the impact goes beyond economics.
“I miss that vibe around the city,” she says. “It’s like going back home for the weekend.”
For Tony Bradshaw, who owns Street Shak Caribbean Catering, “what we miss most is the connection, hearing how visitors found out about our food, and what they are excited to see and do during the festivities.”
The loss of seasonal business will hurt, Bradshaw adds: “Normally sales will slow in early July once cottage and patio season gets into full swing, then we are overwhelmed a couple of weeks later, in a really good way, with local catering requests and visitors from the U.S. and U.K.”
Charles Khabouth, CEO of Ink Entertainment — which includes the luxurious outdoor Cabana Pool Bar near Cherry Beach and several other downtown locations — says the cancellation of the parade and related parties has wiped out “our biggest weekend of the year by far.”
“We probably do somewhere around $6 million with all of our locations in the city, and that’s gone,” he said, adding the company would normally add up to 1,8000 temporary staff members to handle the rush.
Khabouth says many of Ink Entertainment’s locations reopened their patios once Toronto reached Stage 2 and are now serving at around 60 per cent capacity, with proper social distancing and other health and safety measures in place.
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He estimates about 40 per cent of customers are vacationers from Montreal, who are “flocking to Toronto like never before” because of restrictions on travelling abroad.
While indoor seating is now allowed within the rules, he says many customers still prefer the outdoor seating: “If we seriously talk about it, all of our indoor spaces are suffering.”
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