Hello Toast owners say shutting down vehicular traffic on Victoria Street could prevent them from saying goodbye after more than two decades of business downtown.
Earls owners say expanding tables into the parking lot or grass would allow them to rehire staff laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the first week of reopening measures in British Columbia, Kamloops restaurants and retailers are proposing innovative ways to expand capacity and the proposals are being mulled at city hall, with a report expected to go to council on Tuesday, May 26.
Hello Toast co-owner Amy Boughton said her popular breakfast and lunch eatery, downtown at 428 Victoria St., did not reopen this week despite eased restrictions that would have allowed it to operate at half capacity and with other safety precautions in place.
She said consumer confidence is of concern. In addition, based on the small venue size — which typically gives Hello Toast its cozy appeal — and physical-distancing requirements, Boughton said the restaurant would be forced to operate at less than half capacity. She doesn’t know how much longer she and co-owner Brooke Keely can continue to pay its lease without income, having been shuttered since mid-March, with all staff laid off.
Boughton’s landlord does not qualify for commercial property relief, but has charged half the monthly lease rate out of kindness during the pandemic. The restaurant took out a $40,000 federal loan offered by Ottawa, but has used most of it. Other pandemic-related expenses include Plexiglass, floor decals and hiring of an extra staff member to keep up with added cleaning, all of which adds to more uncertainty about the financial viability of Hello Toast.
Boughton is concerned the restaurant could close for good.
“My lease payment is close to $4,000 a month,” she said. “Do I keep paying that in hopes that at some point, I’m going to be able to open to my full capacity? As it is right now, we feel like we would be lucky to break even if we reopen, at which point there is no point in reopening.”
Boughton said closing Victoria Street to vehicular traffic would allow the restaurant to operate with as many tables as it had pre-pandemic, giving it a chance to play catch-up during its most profitable months: summer. She said the additional space would allow service at half-capacity inside, with the remaining tables outside, spread out to adhere to physical-distancing guidelines.
“I have to have that if I’m going to gamble reopening,” Boughton said.
Kamloops Central Business Improvement Association executive director Carl DeSantis has been in conversation this week with the city. He said increased capacity downtown for customers would allow physical distancing and support area businesses. DeSantis suggested shutting down sections of downtown to vehicular traffic, such as Victoria Street, for short periods of time on a rotational basis.
“One block for a week or two, a different block for another week or two, would allow that space along Victoria Street for people to gather and maintain physical distancing as they support our businesses,” he said.
Asked if rotating block closures goes far enough to help, DeSantis said time will tell, but noted shutting off the entire street from First to Sixth avenues would be “unreasonable” from a resourcing perspective, including barricade requirements and staffing and programming to keep the space vibrant.
DeSantis said creating wide open streets with nothing happening would send mixed messages and potentially even create more problems. He said closing down one block at a time would foster feelings of vibrancy, lead to spinoffs for nearby businesses and create mystique, inviting people to return to discover new pedestrian-friendly areas.
DeSantis said there is strong support for the initiative among many downtown businesses, but noted others have concerns.
“I think the ultimate decision has to benefit the overall downtown business community and what is going to be best to reignite the economic situation,” he said.
Across the river, North Shore Business Improvement Association executive director Jeremy Heighton said he also participated in a conference call this week between his organization, the KCBIA and the city.
However, on the North Shore, he said, street closures would not be appropriate. Tranquille Road, for example, is an arterial road. But Heighton does support street-front retail opportunities. Some 35 businesses reopened this week, but are looking to expand hours and offer outdoor patios or retail space to more effectively serve customers.
“We already have some business owners that have expressed interest in doing so,” Heighton said.
Coun. Mike O’Reilly said he and council are aware of the plight of small businesses during the pandemic and are looking at ways to help, both downtown and around the city, stressing the issue is not limited to one area.
“It is very clear to myself and this council that we need to be taking steps to help local, small business,” he said. “It is also very clear that local, small business is not just Victoria Street. We’re working on some ideas and having some things done to help all retail and restaurant businesses throughout the city of Kamloops.”
In Sahali, Earls restaurant reopened on Wednesday at 30 per cent capacity — less than the 50 per cent allowed, due to physical-distancing requirements — and owner Stephen Faraday said the reduced capacity does not give the business enough income to pay rent.
As a result, he wrote to council, requesting permission to expand seating at his Columbia Place eatery to nearby grass or into the parking lot. The landlord has given approval for use of the private property.
“If we were allowed to do that, we could bring five more servers back to work,” Faraday said. “For us, of course, it’s more income. That’s what we’d like to do. Inside, we’re doing lots of things and we’re learning as we go, trying to change the layout of the restaurant.”
City of Kamloops CAO David Trawin said the city is looking at best practices from other communities. He said a report will go to council on Tuesday. O’Reilly said some ideas include extending patios to the full length of the sidewalk, with pedestrian access extended into parking stalls, extending patio season and allowing sidewalk sales without permitting typically required.
Specific to Victoria Street, O’Reilly said the area may have its own regulations in place. One concern he has with shutting down the area to traffic entirely is whether it will require standards similar to that of the Kamloops Regional Farmers’ Market, which operates on St. Paul Street, between Second and Third avenues, and has a maximum capacity of 50 people.
O’Reilly said it would be counterproductive to close Victoria Street to help small businesses, while limiting the number of people allowed in that area. Trawin said the city continues to await from the province information on capacity for such areas.
O’Reilly added that medical offices have expressed concern about patient access and businesses have signed long-term leases with vehicular access in mind. He called it a “balancing act” and expects robust discussion from council next week.
One thing he knows, however, is that a decision needs to be made soon. And action? Even sooner.
“As a small business owner of over 10 years, time is of the essence and this is something I believe that this council wants to see done, as soon as possible,” he said. “This isn’t something we’re going to kick around. This is something that needs to be done now to save our small business community.”