Surviving a 3rd Pandemic-Related Dine-In Closure

by | Apr 9, 2021

Here we are again…

As many of you are already aware, today, April 9, 2021 at noon marks the beginning of another public health order, which closes restaurants for dine-in eating and drinking. This is the third in a series of devastating pandemic-related closures that have prevented us from operating as a dine-in restaurant, and which have required us to invest a great deal into our online ordering offerings for pickup and delivery over the past 13 months. Notably, this set of restrictions is different because it allows restaurants to continue offering their most profitable dine-in service if they have an outdoor patio (people can only be seated outdoors).

The Patio Problem

Unfortunately for us, we are among the 40-45% of restaurants (according to Ernie Tsu, Alberta Hospitality Association) who do not have an outdoor patio, so we are unable to compete in the dine-in space at this time. Further, some of the people who would otherwise turn to pickup and delivery during a universal dine-in restaurant closure will continue going out to restaurants with patios, so we’ll have fewer sales within our lone remaining sales channel. This is very frustrating for us, especially after we strived so hard to not only respect our government’s decisions and the severity of the pandemic, but went way above and beyond the AHS guidelines, which we consider the “bare minimum” of safety standards. We’ve never had a single case of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) transmission linked to our establishment, and we feel so much safer here than almost anywhere else because our protocols are robust, our staff are diligent, and we have incredible air replacement and cubic volume for aerosol dispersal.

With these rules, Alberta has unintentionally created an uneven playing field tilted heavily in favour of the larger restaurant groups and chains that can afford the extra square footage and development costs for a patio, and those few who were fortunate enough to have available land, funds, time and landlord approval to build temporary patios, things that we’ve not had, unfortunately. What hurts the most is that some of those restaurants and bars with patios are the same places putting the rest of us in jeopardy and prolonging this pandemic by wantonly disregarding public health measures and AHS guidelines.

For our part, we have re-engaged with our property management company to try to make a temporary patio a reality, especially in light of these new restrictions, but these things are never fast – the public health restrictions may be changed or lifted before we even obtain permission.

How Are We Doing

Not well, to be honest. We barely endured the last dine-in closure through a series of near-miracles, alive but not unscathed. The cycle of dine-in closures and reopens has had very real consequences on our mental health, with the constant fear that this will not be the end and that closures will happen again, only to be proven right, twice! Working in a cavernous restaurant designed to house 200+ chatty people can be unnerving and depressing when the place is empty, and only a few hours each day are busy enough to distract the mind and keep dark thoughts at bay. Every long-term team member is struggling against burnout right now, while the loss of our only profitable revenue stream increases the pressure on us to work longer and harder.

Financially, we aren’t much better off. When we reopened for dine-in on February 8th, we began to slowly crawl out of a very deep pit that just got three times deeper today. Government subsidies have been extremely helpful, but their pro-rated sliding scale only considers total sales while failing to account for costs. The restaurant industry had to pivot into takeout and delivery during the pandemic, which now has us paying 30-45% more in costs for the exact same products as we used to sell for dine-in, and often at discounted off-sale pricing (for liquor), so $100k in dine-in sales two years ago requires us to earn as much as $166k this year to end up with the same cash coming into our bank account, before we’ve paid a single regular expense. We lose the subsidies completely once we’ve earned the $100k, leaving a $66k deficit to overcome, which is just not realistic or attainable and shows a lack of understanding by our federal government about how small business operations were forced to change during the pandemic.

How You Can Support Us

Please Review Us!

Although reviewing usually comes at the end of your experience, I’m putting this first in this section because online reviews have an outsized impact on our business, especially now with so much hinging on delivery partner apps like Skip the Dishes and DoorDash. For example, on Skip the Dishes, a single week with just 2-3 negative reviews out of hundreds of orders, without enough positive reviews to balance them out, can cost us thousands of dollars in sales over the next four weeks, because it causes us to move further down in the search results on the delivery apps for 28 days, and there’s a sharp decline in the odds of being “discovered” by a user the further down the list you are.

Where & How to Order

The best way to support us right now is by ordering pickup or delivery at https://order.prairiedog.beer (or by clicking the “Order Online” link at the top our website), or by calling us at 403-407-2448. Our online ordering site is hosted by DoorDash and has the exact same menu, but it only costs us $0.30 per order plus a card processing fee, which is less than a dollar more than it costs us for you to pay with our in-house Moneris terminals, and it saves our staff time so that they can focus on people who are currently in the building. Speaking of which, walk-in takeout orders are always welcome!

No matter how you order, please consider leaving a contribution to our staff fund with the Tip/Restaurant Contribution option. With us having to scale back working hours for most of our team due to reduced business levels, staff could use the extra recognition for their skill and effort.

Over the past year, we’ve established a really good relationship with DoorDash, and they came to bat for our business this week, offering far better commission rates than we’ve ever had through a delivery partner (we’ve worked with four delivery partners, so that’s saying a lot, I think). We’ve decided to discontinue our service on Skip the Dishes and go exclusively with DoorDash as of the end of this weekend. So please, by all means, use DoorDash if you find a mobile app easier and more convenient, those sales are still profitable for us, too! Everything helps.

What To Order

Alcohol

First and foremost, alcoholic products are often the most profitable items on a restaurant’s menu, so that’s a great place to start. We sell our Prairie Dog Beer, as well as several awesome guest products (even wine) for online ordering with (nearly) instant pickup and delivery.

Growler and howler jug (re)fills are a really economical way for our customers to buy bulk without us having to cover the extra packaging costs and recycling fees for single-use cans and bottles. You can order growler fills with jug included on DoorDash and our Online Store, or come directly in to order refills.

Food

It may not be obvious at first glance, but the majority of our menu items are made from scratch with as many local ingredients as we can reasonably source, so we spend much of the income from your order directly on our kitchen staff, who had to prepare that food and its components long before you’ve ordered it. Knowing that the pandemic will likely continue for quite a while and that our largest source of revenue will be commission sales with lower profit margins, we’ve had to make some tough choices about our menu offerings:

We’re scaling back our menu to remove items that are either costing us too much to produce, leading to too many mistakes that can’t be rectified in pickup/delivery situations, or that lead to too much food waste at the sales levels we are currently experiencing.

We’re going to adjust prices on a few menu items that are out of step with our costs, like our kids meals.

We’re going to introduce hourly and daily price adjustments to encourage more guests to order from us during times of the day when our staff are under-utilized (and quite frankly bored), but can’t be scheduled back due to necessary coverage for mandatory breaks, 3-hour shift minimums, etc (think of this like “Happy Hours” for online ordering).

So you should feel confident knowing that ordering anything off our food menu is supporting us, especially as we roll out these changes. Ultimately, some changes will be permanent, while others will likely roll back when we’re able to stay consistently open for dine-in eating again.

Merchandise

Merchandise is a difficult thing to keep stocked, especially apparel items, because we never seem to know which size of an item is going to sell the fastest in one colour or another. We ordered a ton of merch shortly before the second dine-in closure was announced, and it all arrived just before we had to close. There’s still quite a lot of some items in inventory, so please be sure to check out our Brewery Gift Guide, which has a comprehensive list of items in stock (you can directly order there for pickup only), or our online ordering page linked earlier for instant pickup & delivery (or the DoorDash app, itself – so many options!).

Gift Cards continue to be a great option to support us as well, and for gift cards only there is a flat $2 mailing fee. You can purchase a gift for the beer and BBQ lover in your life.

Thank You For Your Continued Support

We truly appreciate you reading through this letter and as always, your continued support during these (un)precedented times. We hope we can continue to serve you – our loyal friends and community for dine-in when it is recommended by our government to safely do so. If you have any questions or concerns regarding this email and our operations, please contact feedback@prairiedogbrewing.ca.

Sincerely,

Gerad Coles
President, Founder, & Brewmaster
Prairie Dog Brewing

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