Patio problems: Winnipeg business owners ponder options after flat winter season, unclear COVID summer

Winnipeg restaurant owners are pondering their next patio move after the city’s winter program fell flat, and the summer program got pricey.

Only five businesses in Winnipeg opted for the city’s temporary winter patio program — a free pass to open a patio between Nov. 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021. Little Brown Jug in the Exchange District, JuneBerry in Old. St. Vital, and all three Pony Corral restaurants received the permit.

None actually used it. 

“We were excited that we were approved, but it seemed to be kind of for nothing, unfortunately, because there’s no point if we can’t have people come in,” said Dana Cherski, co-owner and general manager for Juneberry.

Winnipeg was put under red level COVID-19 restrictions on Nov. 2. As a result, restaurants in the city couldn’t offer dining services under the public health order.

That included patios.

Cherski said her team dreamed up a space reminiscent of Festival du Voyageur with heat lamps, tents and art. After code red hit, that dream dissipated.

Chantal Hogue, general manager at Little Brown Jug, says she envisioned cozy blankets, wind blockers and twinkling lights for this patio over the winter, but those dreams were dashed during code red. (Sam Samson/CBC Manitoba)

The crew at Little Brown Jug had a similar experience. They were hoping to expand their permanent patio this winter for folks to relax in the snow with a brew.

“It was really out of our hands with the restrictions, and we understand why that needed to happen,” said manager Chantal Hogue. 

“We were excited to get creative and we had already purchased some propane heaters. So yes, it’s disappointing.”

Public health orders now allow 50 per cent capacity in restaurants with one household per table — offering a sliver of patio promise before winter the spring season.

But Cherski says — like everything in Manitoba — that depends on the weather.

“We do have heat lamps on our patio. so if the weather holds and we have some time to quickly get it cleaned — because it’s obviously quite dirty with all the melting snow and everything — that would be awesome.”

Upcoming patio fee a ‘cash grab’ after dismal dining year

For restaurants that don’t have permanent patios, the city is continuing their temporary patio program for this spring, summer and fall. Last year, more than 60 establishments took that option.

But the temporary program was free in 2020. This year, businesses have to pay a $500 processing fee.

“This summer, the city has established the temporary program as a season-long alternative to the permanent permit process, which is far more expensive and time-consuming to complete,” a city spokesperson said in an email.

The spokesperson said the $500 fee will cover the cost of processing applications, conducting audits and any enforcement activity — adding that the normal process costs between $1,200 and $2,300.

Arun Goyal, manager at Curry & Pint in East Kildonan, says the temporary patio at the restaurant made his customers feel safe last summer. (Sam Samson/CBC Manitoba)

Sunpreet Singh calls the $500 a “cash grab” and “inconsiderate.

“They should be a little bit more reasonable because people have suffered a lot,” said the owner of Curry & Pint in East Kildonan.

Singh and his manager Arun Goyal opted for the temporary patio last summer since they said it made people feel safe to spend time in public. Singh says they were looking forward to using it again until he saw the 2021 price tag. 

“I can’t afford it, and it’s the principle as well. I mean, whoever’s making these rules is absolutely dumb,” he said.

“We don’t know if we’re going to go into lockdown again. It’s not the end of this thing. Obviously the vaccine is out, but we don’t know if it deals with all of these strains. I mean, what, then you pay the 500 and then you’re in lockdown again.”

Singh says unless the city waives the fee, he’ll have to go without an outdoor space this summer. Most of his customers are ordering through delivery apps or for pick-up anyway, he said.

“Nobody wants to come in. It’s not even the rules. People are, like, scared.”

Predicting problems with single household tables

For a cafe in St. Boniface, the current public health rules are directly affecting future patio decisions — specifically the rule of one household per table.

“It’s kind of hard to police when we have minimal staff. We don’t have time for people to be running out of the cafe IDing people out on the patio,” said Keisha Pinder, owner of Diaspora Cafe on Marion Street.

Pinder is in the middle of setting up a permanent patio in front of her cafe, which just opened in January. She says she won’t bother opening it up, however, until public health orders relax.

“If a couple lives together, and one hasn’t updated their driver’s licence, and it says two different addresses, who am I to say ‘too bad, so sad, you’ve been together a couple years but you can’t sit here because your IDs don’t match?'” Pinder said.

“I just feel like the IDing of people is just a fight waiting to happen, and I’m not interested in getting into an argument with anybody — nor is my staff,” she said.

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