COVID-19 forcing a big change in the restaurant industry

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The Glass Monkey reopens with a new business model and high hopes

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I’ve been writing about the Edmonton culinary scene since 2008. I regularly meet entrepreneurs who would be impressive in any business setting, and there are certainly more lucrative pursuits. But the pure love of hospitality keeps these talented people in restaurants, for our greatest benefit.

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It is therefore with Rob Filipchuk of The Glass Monkey Gastropub. For 13 years before opening the Lendrum area restaurant in 2013, Filipchuk owned a wine shop. This week, I jokingly asked him if he’d rather be back in the liquor business during COVID-19. Filipchuck replied that his favorite business was one that had been open for 10 years, with all bugs fixed and systems running efficiently.

He was not far from that goal with The Glass Monkey when COVID-19 hit. Now Filipchuck is back to the beginning, building a new business model from the wreckage of the old. Although the situation is more than stressful, it is also instructive. Food entrepreneurs who can pivot quickly during COVID-19 may be the ones who succeed.

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Throughout this pandemic, I’ll be watching the city’s Rob Filipchucks — and they’re already sprouting — and telling you about them. Because Edmontonians need to support restaurateurs if we want this city to continue to provide widespread, high-end dining, as it has for the past 10-15 years.

A bit of history on The Glass Monkey. The restaurant, located in the former Jack’s Grill, had 82 seats and another 10 at the bar. Wine was front and center, with knowledgeable staff able to advise you on the best grape to pair with your burger or pasta. Food was really good, prices were reasonable.

There were high tables for a casual atmosphere, but the lighting made it feel like you were in town. Full disclosure: My husband and I went here after playing tennis at the nearby Saville Center because we loved being able to enjoy a great meal and a glass of wine, while wearing our hastily pulled sweatpants on our tennis equipment.

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Filipchuk says it took a while for The Glass Monkey to be at its best, but it was pretty much there. One of the keys was convincing people that it was actually a good thing to have to wait in line for a bit (a complementary glass of prosecco helped make this palatable) or sneaking into the bar.

“People finally accepted that it was cool and fun to crowd six around a four-top, like in Germany, France and Italy. We worked for years, and eventually over the course of two years, people thought it was cool to wait for their table and chat with the person next to them.

Now, with new physical distancing rules, that hard-earned feat is a thing of the past. Filipchuk is therefore doing something different.

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“If we can evolve fast enough, we are not threatened with extinction,” he says. “If we don’t, we’re finished.”

Filipchuk used one of the federal government’s programs — the wage subsidy — to help with the evolution. This kept staff and trained them for other tasks in the new model. He’s still trying to figure out the rent subsidy offered to landlords (which media reports have caused problems, including the inability to entice landlords to take advantage of it for various reasons).

The Glass Monkey’s goal is not to reopen in its old format.

“It’s to continue to recreate the hospitality industry, and our level of service and our connection to our great customers, with the same high quality as before. But it will look different.

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Filipchuk says customers aren’t ready to return to a restaurant, but they still want good food delivered in a safe and convenient way. They don’t want to make too many stops on the way back because they are nervous. So he hopes to make The Glass Monkey a one-stop-shop.

He elaborates on a future look: “I see my 3,000 square foot space transformed into a market setting, with a wall of carefully selected wine, a refrigerated cabinet with our vacuum sealed deli meats, so it looks like a nice delicatessen or meat market. There’s a bakery shelf, and maybe the patio opens up, because we can easily physically distance ourselves, and it’s been very successful over the years.

So maybe you have some wine and charcuterie while you wait for your pick up.

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The pickup element is already firmly in place. The staff will place your order by phone directly in your trunk, curbside.

But if you choose to take a walk inside The Glass Monkey today, you’ll get a glimpse of what’s to come. There are sealed liter jars of homemade soup lining a table, as well as bottles of wine that staff can include in the cardboard box of food you ordered in advance. Fresh homemade sourdough bread is now also available.

Other options are set to expand.

“We’re learning that people want great food and home entertainment options and a social experience. So when we looked at what might work well in the future, we came up with specific theme nights.

The Ukrainian feast at Glass Monkey Gastropub includes perogies, kubasa, cabbage rolls, pancakes filled with cottage cheese, borscht and cornmeal polenta.  Larry Wong/Postmedia
The Ukrainian feast at Glass Monkey Gastropub includes perogies, kubasa, cabbage rolls, pancakes filled with cottage cheese, borscht and cornmeal polenta. Larry Wong/Postmedia Photo by Larry Wong /Postmedia

Mother’s Day, Ukrainian Night, Asian Food, Saturday Prime Rib Extravaganzas roll out. These themes make dining fun and special, and that’s what people need during COVID-19.

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The restaurant is also turning to dinner kits with meals that will be self-catering, but give diners the option to do some of their own cooking. The kit can hold a raw steak, raw prepared vegetables, plus roasted nuts and marinated olives to snack on with the perfect bottle of wine while you barbecue.

Filipchuk thinks the old way of eating in restaurants might come back, but he can’t wait for that. It is fortunate that changes to government rules mean that customers can now take home wine, beer and alcoholic products (including cocktail kits).

“It’s huge,” he said.

While he’s not looking for a silver lining in this dire situation, it’s also true that the crisis has led to a very special experience for Filipchuk and his family. His parents have a rural property near Smoky Lake and have always had a large garden. At this time of year, last season’s potato stock was beginning to soften. So Rob’s mom was doing perogies.

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Last week, the whole Filipchuk family, including teenagers Layla and Noah, went to the countryside and made perogies, cabbage rolls and pancakes stuffed with cottage cheese. All ingredients were local. Combined with Stawnichy’s Sausage Mundare, classic comfort food was the restaurant’s Ukrainian specialty earlier this week.

“This creativity was born out of necessity,” says Filipchuk. “It matches the mantra of our gastropub, made from A to Z from the best ingredients. But it’s also the most amazing experience I could have had with my 80-year-old mom and dad and my 16- and 14-year-old kids. Three generations making this product and sharing the love of this industry.

lfaulder@postmedia.com

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