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Nora Gray
Photograph: Clayton Sandhu

What’s it like for a top Montreal restaurateur when they close their restaurant?

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Amidst the growing uncertainties piling up surrounding the global ramifications of coronavirus in Montreal, some restaurateurs took a bold stand in the face of a looming crisis involving tons of cancellations, closures and postponements in Montreal. One such restaurateur is Ryan Gray, co-owner of Montreal’s Elena and Nora Gray, who decided to close his restaurants to the public preceding the announcement from the Federal and Provincial governments a week ago.

Gray, along with restaurant owners across the city, stood in solidarity, refusing to keep their doors open in fear of serving as a hub for community transference of the virus. These actions, however, come at a time where much is unknown, not the least of which is the duration these businesses will need to remain closed and the economic impact these prolonged closures will have on these small businesses and their employees.

We spoke with Ryan Gray about the economic impact of his decision on his business, and his responsibility as a restaurateur to his community.

Ryan Gray, Nora Gray

Photograph: Clayton Sandhu

How are you guys holding up?

Yeah, we’re good. Just really enjoying all being home together. It’s amazing how busy you can keep when you have a 1 year old and you’re running restaurants remotely.

Speaking of which, you have two businesses that are closed due to the response to COVID-19. How will this impact you financially and why did you decide to close before being required to?

We all, myself and my peers, like to think of ourselves as people who are socially responsible. We make decisions on a daily basis that may not be in our financial best interest but are in the best interest of our community.  Friday night at Elena, we saw a 20-30 per cent drop in reservations, but we were still doing 130 [clients]. There’s something wrong, people were not getting the message [to stay home]. So then, we become complicit [in allowing the virus to spread]. At a certain point we need to be responsible. We need to be the voice of reason that says, “this is wrong”, and even if there’s a massive financial toll for us and for our small businesses, this is just not the right thing to do, to give people a space to congregate en masse.

Did you speak with any other restaurant owners in making your decision to close? What role do you think restaurants play in helping to prevent the further spread of COVID-19?

There were several group discussions going on Friday morning [with] industry people, about what we were going to do and what the plan was. On Thursday everyone was like, “we’re going to take proper precautions, but we’re going to stay the course”, but by Friday morning the tone had changed. We (Elena partners Ryan Gray, Emma Cardarelli and Marley Sniatowsky) and the Joe Beef group spoke to a good friend of ours, a doctor on the front lines on this situation, and basically he said “this is serious, and you guys are worried about staying open for one more night?” One of the arguments people were making [in favour of staying open] was that [restaurants] are supposed to be a place where people can gather and forget about their problems, but that is the problem, you know? The decision just became really easy for all of us once we realized, you can’t be part of the problem, you have to be part of the solution. Marco (Marc Olivier Frappier of Mon Lapin) said it best: “It was simultaneously the hardest and easiest decision I’ve ever made.”

Your restaurants serve as gathering spots, especially Elena, which is open 7 days a week. What sort of responsibility do you feel you have to your community?

Simple: We can’t continue to allow people to congregate in the restaurants. You talk about community and you know, that is the best call for the community - to close - because we do care about our community.

Realistically, assuming things don’t progress to the point that you can’t sell any food at all, how long do you think you can continue to keep your businesses closed?

We don’t know. We’re lucky that both restaurants (Elena and Nora Gray) are in relatively stable financial situations, and like I said before, our goal isn’t self-enrichment as owners of these businesses. It’s certainly not why we do this. It means that we hope to lean on the goodwill of our landlord, and they’ll be cool with pushing back our rent until we can afford to pay. We just need to hope that we don’t run up too many big bills, because the thing is, the cycle of the restaurant is two weeks or thirty days behind.

When you close, you don’t have any revenue or positive cashflow, which is a problem because the bills are still coming in from two weeks before. You need to have—hopefully—a little money in the bank. Truthfully, I don’t know how [businesses] who are in week to week situations are going to survive this. I think they’re really going to need to rely on the goodwill of suppliers, of landlords, of the government, of everybody. I think that’s resoundingly what’s going to have to happen, our economy is screeching to a halt, everyone is going to have to do their share and take a hit. Goodwill and hope is all we really have to rely on. Unfortunately, I think a lot of businesses who are teetering are going to close. I don’t know how they bounce back from this.

What type of support would you want from the government of Quebec or federal governments?

We’re hoping they will not expect us to pay our quarterly taxes again, which we just paid just before this all happened. We know that there is [a significant amount of money] allocated to help small businesses if need be, so you know, we’ll be relying on that. And, like everyone else that works at the restaurant, I’m going on unemployment. The government, I think, has been pretty amazing, up until now, at motivating people to close by saying things like “we’ll waive the waiting period and you can go on unemployment straight away.” So yeah, we’ll be relying heavily on the government.

How important is it that restaurants continue to offer food to their communities?

People still need to be able to buy food. One of the main reasons that the government didn’t shut down restaurants all over the place, even in places really [affected by the virus] is that if you shut down all the restaurants, you overwhelm all the grocery stores. Also, when you think about who supplies Elena versus who supplies Provigo, the supply chain is completely different. We’re buying mostly from small farms, we’re buying raw ingredients that are then going to be transformed. If you shut that down completely there’s a massive ripple effect across all those industries as well. Kellog’s and Nestle, they’re going to be fine, they can keep pumping out product to grocery stores and people will buy it as fast as they can stock it, but who’s going to support Moulin Des Cèdres? You can’t buy their products on the shelves. That’s the kind of business that we can still order from and support.

Our goal with Elena’s take-out and delivery service is to be able to keep the lights on and to offer the jobs that exist right now to people who don’t qualify for EI so that they can continue to make a little bit of money and support themselves.

But going back to community, Elena is a community place that people can depend on every day. At the very least, if you don’t have food in your fridge and there was nothing left at the grocery store or whatever the situation, [you can still] come down [to Elena], tap your card to buy a few pizzas and maybe even a bottle of wine so you can have a nice time at home.

We want people to stay home, but at the end of the day, people still need to eat. We can provide people with food; we can provide jobs, and we can provide revenue for businesses supplying us with our products. So [anything] we can do is a positive, I think.

If you want to support local restaurants who are still offering meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, look into the best takeout and delivery in Montreal; if you need something more substantial, the best meal and grocery delivery in Montreal and taking a world tour through the variety of grocery stores in Montreal can provide. You can also help out restaurants by buying merch, gift cards, or simply reposting a story on Instagram to help get the word out.

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