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Vaughan Rising Blog: Vaughan’s Restaurant Industry Maximizes the Moments of Opportunity

On March 17, 2020, the Government of Ontario declared a state of emergency to combat COVID-19. Measures included prohibiting organized events of more than 50 people, shutting down schools, and closing bars and restaurants.

The government offered restaurants lifelines along the way:

  • Takeout and delivery from the beginning,
  • Patio service in June, and
  • Socially distanced dining room service in July.

Unfortunately, despite these measures, a Restaurants Canada survey conducted in July revealed that most restaurants were still losing money and could take a year or more to return to profitability.

In Vaughan, some restaurants have chosen to close either temporarily or permanently, but many have made adjustments to keep operating under the new rules.  Other restaurants have taken a bolder approach. Not only have they stayed open, they maximized every opportunity to develop new products and services. Giro d’Italia, an Italian restaurant in Concord, is one example of the latter and they were willing to share their experience.

Five ways Giro D’Italia found opportunities amid pandemic uncertainty

1. Keeping up with world events and industry pivots

“We had expected something like the lockdown as several countries in Europe, including Spain, France and England, had already gone into lockdown. So, we had a feeling that it was coming to Canada too,” says Michele Pellegrini, Head Chef at Giro D’Italia Ristorante.

Yet the lockdown was still a pretty dramatic moment, filled with doubts and a cloudy future. Nobody really knew what was going to happen, whether the restaurant could survive, and even if the staff would decide to stay. The lockdown created a lot of questions.

The restaurant closed down with no end in sight, but Giro was not ready to give up. He confesses, “I’d been home for 10 days, but honestly after three days I was already very agitated. I am a very active person. I have to have something to do.”

About 15 to 20 days after the start of the lockdown, Michele spoke with a friend of his in Italy, at a restaurant where he used to work, and heard that they had started doing some takeout and catering.

2. Adapting current offerings to changing circumstances

Giro D’Italia also had clients asking why they weren’t doing takeout, saying, “We miss all your food.” The team decided to quickly come up with a short menu to fall in line with what many other restaurants were doing and to offer loyal clients the chance to have some of their dishes.

“I’m blessed because I have a fantastic staff,” explains Michele. He talked his takeout ideas over with them and asked how they felt. A few decided to give it a try.

Giro D’Italia had never done takeout before, and the staff didn’t know if their dishes could survive the delivery window. They experimented. Michele tells the story, “Every customer loves our shrimp and calamari. One day, we made a few portions and I drove around for 15 to 20 minutes with the fish in my car. It was completely soggy. Obviously, when you eat the food at home it must be the same. This is the first thing I discussed with the staff. We need to come up with some dishes that will be decent after being picked up or driven 20 minutes for delivery.”

They worried that if it wasn’t the same, they would lose their long-time customers. After some experimentation, they were able to create a selection of dishes that remained consistent after 15 to 20 minutes. Customers loved the new takeout-proof menu. Michele and his staff even expanded it to include new products such as family-sized meals and make-your-own pizza and pasta boxes.

3. Creating new offerings to meet emerging demand

In addition, Giro D’Italia staff started up Giro Mercato to meet the demand for Italian grocery staples. Giro Mercato evolved out of the existing takeout to accommodate requests from customers for grocery items. People were phoning and asking if Giro could provide yeast or a bottle of wine with their takeout order.

Instead of waiting for people to ask for additional products, they decided to offer the Giro Mercato service. “We came up with a list of groceries. Honestly, it was very good in terms of cost for the customers, because we’re not a market or grocery store, we only added about 10 cents to every product such as herbs and pasta. We started to sell our own pasta, which is something I’m really happy about. We made nice packages with homemade pasta and it started to sell,” shares Michele. “At the moment the ideas come from the request of the customers. We just adjusted our business idea around the situation.”

All of these steps were enough to hold on to core clients and keep the restaurant afloat, but, compared to before, business was still slow. However, this rare stretch of quiet time did have a silver lining. They developed a new supplier list, an inventory system, and experimented with new dishes.

4. Restructuring physical space to stay relevant and inviting

Then, as lockdown lifted, patio service became a possibility. Giro D’Italia didn’t have a patio, but they built one in the parking lot to maximize the opportunity. “We never had the chance to have a patio. Now the city has allowed us to have a patio for a few months. The first weekend was very successful, and the people enjoyed staying until late. Now we’re working on a lounge area, where people can chill out.”

With a lounge, people won’t need to come just to eat a full meal. They can also come after eating at home to sit and have a drink with appetizers and lounge music. It’s important to Michele to give people a chance to enjoy life in this situation that is new for all of us.

At the moment, Giro D’Italia is able to open for dine-in service at 50% capacity but no one knows how long that will last as the cooler weather arrives and the possibility of a second wave of the pandemic looms.

5. Continuing to re-evaluate and respond as circumstances evolve

If a second wave comes, restrictions will return. But Giro isn’t necessarily going to rely on the initiatives that worked during the first wave.

Michele admits, “I don’t know how the people will react. In the first wave, we had this big boom of takeout, this big boom of everybody starting to bake, cook at home, order wine. But if this happens again in another couple of months, I don’t know what the general reaction will be. Because the first wave was completely new, a situation that nobody had ever lived through, the reaction was built in progress. For the second one, I personally don’t think in general the people will have the same reaction. It will be more frustrating and depressive. It will be more complicated and harder to handle. As a business, you can have all the ideas you want, but if it’s not the right moment, it doesn’t work.”

It was the right moment for Giro’s takeout, grocery, and patio. He advises, “You need to just be flexible and adjust your work to the situation.”

Maintaining resilience in the face of future challenges

So that’s what’s next for Giro D’Italia: watching for the right moments and rolling with them. Already, since the interview in July, they saw an opportunity for a catering business and for offering personal chef services for home-based private events. The team is also working on some other top-secret ideas, but we’ll have to watch and wait to see more examples of this resilient Vaughan business pivoting, innovating, and doing what it takes to get to the other side.

 

The information presented in this article is provided solely for the purpose of bringing ideas to the attention of the business community, as a service to the businesses of the City of Vaughan.

The City of Vaughan does not, whether directly or indirectly, endorse, sponsor or sanction the opinions expressed in this article, nor any services or products that may be offered by the contributor/s in their normal course of business.  The City of Vaughan does not intend by this article to recommend the contributor/s nor to promote them as subject matter experts over any other business persons employed or engaged in similar lines of business.