‘We Were Freaking Out’: 4 Female Restaurateurs On Coping In A Pandemic

Women-owned businesses have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Here’s how these women are getting by.

photo of women packing a meal for takeout

(Photo: iStock)

Women and the businesses they own have been hit the hardest by the pandemic’s financial devastation, according to a study released in December that included more than 10,000 small businesses. On average, businesses in Canada led by women are taking twice as long to recover from the economic downfalls brought on by COVID-19 compared to those owned by men. These bleak statistics are seen most evident in industries that are dominated by women, such as hospitality and food. According to Restaurants Canada, women make up 58 percent of the restaurant workforce, and eight out of 10 restaurants are losing money or barely scraping by. We asked a few women across the country who own restaurants to share their biggest challenges, observations—and advice for making it through.

(Photo provided) 

Name: Sharon Bond
Title: CEO of Kekuli Cafe Properties Inc.
Location: West Kelowna, B.C.
In the beginning: “It was at least 75 percent that we lost in business that first month and a half to two months, I’d say. It was quite significant. We were freaking out. And of course, we didn’t really know what to think, there wasn’t really much information coming out, just a lot of a lot of fear in the beginning.”
Adapting to change: “A lot of our sales [before the pandemic] were mainly from eating indoors, for the experience at Kekuli. [Customers] want the Indigenous music, we have the Indigenous art and giftware and food and bannock. But then we had to shut down half the store because the government reduced seating to 50 percent. Then we had to spend money on things like stickers, decals and signage, and safety gear like sanitizer for the customers when they come in. We just had to be very flexible in the beginning.”
Supporting the staff: “We pay living wages for our staff and I think that’s important. People got raises throughout the pandemic because we wanted to keep them, we can’t lose them. So we ran a really tight ship.”
How she pivoted: “Being a fast casual Indigenous restaurant, we were able to do everything take-out or curbside. We have an app that helps with the curbside for pickup … We’re all trying to abide by the rules of staying home [but] things like that have put a dent in a lot of the small business restaurants in the Okanagan. We’ve used Doordash, Skip the Dishes, now we’re on UberEats, we have an app. We never did those things before. We get a million phone calls a day and we can’t keep answering the phone or we wouldn’t be getting anything done. We have [the Kekuli Cafe] app now and that really helps with a lot of the takeout and stuff like that.”
Official support: She credits Indigenous Tourism Canada and Indigenous Tourism British Columbia with helping her stay afloat during the pandemic. “Without financial support through them, I don’t think we would have made it through the pandemic … these Indigenous organizations were able to receive federal funding along the way to help the Indigenous and small businesses owned by Indigenous people. I didn’t receive much help from mainstream banks, being a woman in business and Indigenous, I could never get a loan through any bank for anything.”
Community support: Another thing that helped business was partnering with the Westbank Canadian Tire, whose owner ordered lunch for all their staff from Kekuli for almost two months. She said because tourism was down all summer, she also saw locals discovering the cafe.
Words of advice: “Smile behind those masks. Keep a song in your heart and just be positive that we’ll get through this.”

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Name: Rima Devitt
Title: Co-owner of Blue Plate Diner
Location: Edmonton
In the beginning: Business dropped and they had to lay off a lot of their staff, but she’s grateful for the additional help. “We’ve benefitted from some of the support that the provincial and federal government have put out, which is great. We’ve gotten a lot of help from our landlord—we wouldn’t have been able to survive without those types of support for sure, as well as support from our customers. It’s not been a totally negative time.”
The biggest challenges: “When you throw a problem like [not knowing what to expect on a day-to-day basis] at a restaurant owner, we’re definitely already pretty well equipped to deal with those changes because it’s sort of the nature of our industry, dealing with day-to-day changes and lots of peaks and valleys … Blue Plate diner has been open for 17 years. When you see the valleys, you really know that it’s not a valley that’s endless.”
Adapting to change: Like most others, dealing with staffing issues has been a challenge, but she’s also been able to foster closer relationships with those still there. “Working more closely with the kitchen staff has been really satisfying. The front of house, which I run, is a lot more female dominated and that’s really comfortable for me, [but they’ve] generally been laid off during this lockdown. So I’ve been working really closely with [my ex-husband and business partner] John and with our kitchen crew, mainly male dominated, and it’s been really rewarding for me to be able to establish a closer relationship and have more of a sense of what the overall workings of the restaurant are.”
At home: As a parent, she’s had to step back from the restaurant in order to take care of her children’s needs a few times over the past year, but she acknowledges things would be different if she didn’t have the support she has. “I was able to do that because my business partner is my kids’ dad and my ex, not really sure if this would be the case if I ran the restaurant independently or if I had a less personal connection to my business partner. The restaurant being as immersive as it is—and with parenting being as demanding as it can be at times—this would definitely be a challenge for my female colleagues in the industry.”
Government support: Supporting small businesses over corporate businesses is a biggie. “Specifically, I think that more governments could be looking at putting caps on third-party delivery fees because that’s really affected us. We really depend on those right now. We didn’t use those before all of this started and we use two now.” Some restaurant owners are calling on Alberta to implement a 15 percent cap on delivery fees, similar to Ontario and British Columbia.
Words of advice: Do whatever you have to do to get through this. “If you can survive this, I think the playing field will be a lot more level. Wrap your brain around the online and social media aspect of marketing your business and take the opportunity to learn more about how your business runs.”

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Name: Renée Charles, Donna Charles and Nicole Charles-Page
Titles: Co-owners of SugarKane Restaurant
Location: Toronto
In the beginning: They shut the restaurant down at the beginning of the pandemic for a month and a half. “That was a scary time because we weren’t sure what was going to happen after we closed, we weren’t sure if we were going to possibly open back up or [if we’d] even get our employees back,” said Donna.
Getting by: “We’re back up and running. We’re open for takeout and delivery. Right now, we’re just making enough to get by. We’ve had help from the government, which is helping a little bit with our rent and the employees that we do have coming in,” Nicole said.
The biggest challenges: With the second wave, they had to let go of most of their staff. “That was really hard because we had such a great team,” Renée said. The other challenge, as for most small businesses, is dealing with a lower income—especially with the lack of dine-in patrons. Donna, who normally handles the finances, said the first of the month is always scary as they have to make sure they have enough orders to cover rent.
At home: Nicole, who’s also a mother to a six-year-old, has had to share the one computer at home with her son as he did online learning. “He’s on there literally every half an hour for the first half of the day. And for me, I’m the one that handles marketing and promotions and things like that [so] to have access to that as well as helping him with his work has been pretty crazy.”
Adapting to change: “We picked off some of the expensive items that we had on the menu because it would cost too much, it wouldn’t even make sense for us to have,” Nicole said. Other changes to their business include getting PPE and relying on delivery services, as well as scaling back hours to keep it feasible for them to keep going.
It’s harder this time around: “It just feels like everything is taking too long and it’s not as much [help],” Nicole said. Something that would make things easier is help with rent, Donna added.
How they pivoted: One of the most successful things they’ve done to boost business is partner with Thermador appliances. “We were able to do a live cooking show [online] where people purchased tickets and cooked along with us. That was very helpful in both ways, as far as money is concerned as well as popularity. So people figured out who we were and they liked the food, and now they come by and order from us as well,” Nicole said.
Support systems: “Takeout is the best way to support us, although we also offer delivery. Though, these delivery companies tend to charge us a lot and take a big chunk of the money. Do reviews, post pictures, tag us, tell a friend, get gift certificates. Any way customers can do that, that’ll definitely help,” said Renée.
Words of advice: “It was a quote from Muhammad Ali, you’re going to get knocked down, I think everybody’s gotten knocked down. It’s just a matter of getting back up. You’ve got to just stick with it [and] try to push through the hard times,” Donna said.

(Photo: Sarah Hassanein)

Name: Somaiah Elsikely
Title: Owner, manager and cook at Adam’s Halal Pub
Location: Toronto
In the beginning: Business has been rocky since the start of the pandemic. “We rely a lot on the dine-in, 90 percent of our business was dine-in because we’re a halal pub that doesn’t serve alcohol … Keeping staff was difficult, I’ve let go of a lot of people. Financially it’s been a huge struggle because I’m a mother, I have a lot of children, we have six of them at home.” Even during the brief period in Toronto where restaurants were allowed to offer limited seating, business was light. “We rely on sports events, and a lot of the sports events were shut down.”
Adapting to change: To keep her business running, she’s had to rely on multiple delivery apps to accommodate for the increased online orders. “Before we just relied on walk-in and Uber. Now I have a variety of [delivery apps] … I also had to make a virtual restaurant to add an extra income.” She created a restaurant on UberEats under another name, Philly Special, along with a separate menu—though it specifies that it’s run by Adam’s Halal Pub. Establishing it wasn’t too bad, she said, and it was a good idea to create it.
At home: She has six kids, ages ranging from four to 21, which has been hectic. “It’s beyond insane. I feel like I’m in a daycare … the younger ones are the hardest. Originally I had the high school kids at home and the younger ones in school because their school is much smaller. I had to change my store hours. Before we used to open from 12 p.m. to 2 a.m., now I have to open from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. My husband opens the store from 4 p.m. till midnight. I go to bed around 4 p.m. and I wake up around 11 p.m., and then I take over the store. Once I’m done work at 4 a.m., I stay up and do a little bit of housework and then wake everybody for school in the morning.”
Government support: She says no support will be enough, especially for a restaurant. “I would say we’re sinking ourselves slowly. Financially, there’s no way you can support a family of eight based on an income that’s cut close to 70 percent—and also make a business survive … as for assistance from the government, they’re very picky and choosy. For example, with this rent relief, you have to show specific paperwork. The paperwork they’re asking you to do, if you have time to do it, I give you all the power, but I don’t even have time to breathe. With my schedule, with my work hours, with my home, there’s no way you have time to sit there and organize paperwork after all that … my accountant caught COVID so he can’t do the paperwork for me. To get the help, they don’t make it easy for the business owner to do it. I know there’s rent relief, there’s grants, there’s lots of loans, but loans don’t do anything for you. Because you’re just adding to the burden that you already have. So have they helped the restaurant business? I don’t think so.”
Home support: Aside from support as a business owner, she says support with kids being home would go a long way. “It becomes very difficult thinking about saving funds for colleges, [or for] anything, by now, it’s all gone. Sometimes you feel like your capabilities are just not there. As a female you have to really thrive, and as a Muslim female you really have to thrive. As a business owner, [it’d help to get a] little support, and make it easy to get that help. Don’t burden me with all these calculations and paperwork.”
Words of advice: Hang in there as much as you can. “Sometimes you do have to go with what’s happening. I was thinking about flipping my dine-in into a mini grocery store and if I was financially able to, I would have done it. I’m trying to think of an alternative to use that space because my heart says by the end of this year and next year is when dine-in is going to return to a little bit of normalcy. I would definitely say find an alternative to your food business but I wouldn’t shut down the food business because people always need food. I’m very optimistic, there has to be light at the end of the tunnel.”

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.