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Restaurant owners wrestle with uncertainty

Every second day, George Gogoris drives up to his restaurant. He arrives at around 11:00 a.m., but there’s no sound of staff talking among themselves, no meat simmering on the grill, or the chatter of customers as they wait for their meals at Robbie’s Smokehouse and Burger Bar.

It’s just him.

Gogoris begins to run down his to-do list. He releases the water accumulating from the fridge into two buckets, checks the freezers and verifies that there’s no leaks anywhere before checking the electric room to make sure no breakers are down.

“The reality is, it’s my escape from all of this and it gives me something to look forward to,” said Gogoris.

Gogoris was one of many restaurant owners in Kahnawake forced to close their doors indefinitely due to COVID-19, on March 17.

According to Gogoris, he didn’t receive an adequate amount of time to properly close his restaurants. He said, unlike restaurants in the city, they were notified on the day that they were to shut down, by five o’clock.

“We understand, it’s for the safety of the public,” he said. “I’m just saying we didn’t have a chance to close our restaurant properly, at least give us a few days.”

Unlike restaurants such as De La Place, and Rooster Express, Robbie’s isn’t able to offer delivery, leaving it with no source of income. Gogoris’ staff, including himself, are currently out of work.

“We’re in a business where a lot of our staff are students, there’s a lot of families that live paycheck to paycheck and now they have no income coming in,” Gogoris said.

Though still open for business, both De la Place and Rooster Express were also vulnerable to staff cuts. Denny Piskopos, owner of De la Place, said he’s had to lay-off about 75 per cent of his staff. Mike Cunningham, owner of Rooster Express, said at least five to seven employees were laid-off.

Letting some of the staff go, and giving them their record of employment, was one the hardest things Piskopos has had to do.

“It’s not their fault, but having to do that is hard,” said Piskopos. “Even the cooks that I work with every day there’s a few that I’ve had to let go, guys that you get along with and you’re telling them, ‘I can’t keep you.’ It’s not easy.”

Piskopos and Gogoris are regularly in touch with their staff, often communicating through Facebook, or text messages, sending pictures and cooking memes to each other.

The biggest hurdle for Gogoris throughout the pandemic has been the uncertainty. “We don’t know how long it’s going to be and to what effect. When are we going to re-open again?” he asked. “Can we get our clientele back? Will we be able to open up regularly?”

“There’s so many unanswered questions, we’re in uncharted territory,” continued Gogoris. “We don’t know how the people are going to react if things go back to normal. We’ll see what normal is in the future.

With the benefit of staying open, the unpredictable nature of the pandemic has affected the businesses’ ability to make consistent sales, with the number of clientele differing from one day to another. 

According to Piskopos, the restaurant will serve 10 clients one day, but then soar to 100 the next.

“It’s all over the place,” said Piskopos.

Piskopos has even cut down his menu, and has been preparing as little food as possible so not to waste any by the end of the night.

Currently, Piskopos is not thinking about profit, but how the restaurant can stay afloat. Right now, he’s just focused on delivering food to his customers.

Like all establishments, measures are put in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Delivery drivers are equipped with hand sanitizer in the car.

Precautionary measures at Rooster Express also involve informing their client to leave the money for their meals in an envelope outside and the food is delivered at the door. If the client needs to pay with Interac, the machine is in a poly bag ready for use.

Underneath the uncertainty that owners like Gogoris are faced with, he’s managed to find a silver lining amid the pandemic.

Working in the restaurant business, Gogoris is used to spending more of his time at Robbie’s than at home. He’s used to seeing his staff more than his family.

“From 55 hours to five hours, is a big difference,” said Gogoris.

Since Robbie’s closed its doors, Gogoris has been spending time with his wife and two sons, throwing the football in the yard and playing soccer and taking their six month old German Shepherd for walks.

He’s also found the time to indulge in garden work.

“I’ve been fixing my yards,” he said. “Things that would normally take me four more weeks to do, I’ve already done.”

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