“It’s probably been the biggest challenge of our careers.”
In this Q and A, Blair Lebsack and Caitlin Fulton of the multiple-award-winning restaurant RGE RD talk about making massive changes to their business model to cope with the COVID-19 crisis. RGE RD is one of many Edmonton and area restaurants that has had to revamp the way it does things in order to keep the doors open and support the community. Remember that the more we can do to support each other during the COVID-19 crisis, the better we will be poised to recover once our public-health officials tell us that we can return to our normal routines.
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AVENUE: How did the restaurant adapt over time as the regulations from the provincial government became more strict?
BL: When we first heard of it coming, it definitely changed everything. One, our daycare closed down, so then Caitlin had taken the first chunk of time at home, and I’d been going into the restaurant and trying to design some new take-out menu options. But, early on, I think we recognized what was probably coming down the line, so we started to have conversations and figure out what we were going to do. Caitlin was spearheading that, telling us to get ready to shut down, because we didn’t want to be part of the problem, we wanted to be part of the solution. Our pivot happened early, we recognized it and we started ordering ingredients that we thought would be good for delivery and take-out. And that’s where we’ve gone.
CF: It’s probably been the biggest challenge of our careers, to basically shift our business overnight. It’s been terrifying and difficult every step of the way.
BL: Especially because some people think that we’re a fine-dining restaurant, we still think we’re pretty upscale casual. But, to go from that style that we were doing, to just take-out, we had that realization that people didn’t need our fancy plating at this time, they wanted comfort food and the things that could make them feel like they could make it through another week.
AVENUE: You were planning to open a butcher shop this spring; you’re already offering some butcher packs for people to take home …
CF: In some ways, we’re accelerating the opening of the butcher shop. We’re trying to provide all those products in a pre-order kind of way. Also, being under construction, we’re trying to close in on an opening. That’s a whole new ballgame. I mean, all our finances are wrapped up in something that’s under construction, so that’s an added pressure, of course. And the only thing, up until this point, that had been providing revenue for us was providing intimate dining experiences in a small, cozy dining room. So, having to lead a team, we’re quite small, down to a skeleton crew, trying to keep them motivated, trying to connect to the community during this time has definitely been an uphill battle.
AVENUE: Your take-out menu is available online and went out via e-mail. What has the support been like?
BL: The reaction’s been really good. We’ve been happy to see that people want to order our food. We’re trying to keep everything very price sensitive, eight-dollar pot pies and 15-dollar pierogy and sausage dinners. It’s definitely where we’re headed with this. It’s been nice to see people ordering and excited to come and pick up. We are excited to do it, but we are running at about 20 per cent of our regular volume. It is allowing us to keep on every staff member who hasn’t been self-quarantined. Anyone who said they’re feeling ill, they’re all off. We’re just trying to make this happen so we keep supporting the crew and the team that wants to work and, when this is over, to get back to full service.
CF: We also have some pretty strict guidelines in place. We’re not letting anybody in the restaurant (dining room) at this time. We’re working a fine line right now. We are preserving the recommendations for social distancing while also trying to stay alive economically.
AVENUE: And to preserve social distancing, in case you’re wondering, we are doing this interview over the phone.
BL: One of the other things that has been actually very difficult for us, is that we all meet in the restaurant, we typically have a team meeting to go over menus, to look in the fridge for food and stuff like that. But now, whether I am at home or at the restaurant, we’re doing everything via texts and email and, boy, is that more time-consuming. You realize how much more difficult it is just to do small things in this COVID-19 time. It makes us realize having such a small restaurant like ours is such a beautiful thing, and to blow it up right now makes everything more difficult. What keeps us going is that people are really nice when they’re calling to pick up orders. People are very enthusiastic about us putting out a variety of food.
AVENUE: If you have a message for Edmontonians during these difficult times, what would it be?
BL: Feel free to lean on us. We’re continuing to purchase our things, healthy, naturally raised products. We still have lots of vegetables that were stored for us, our farmers are able to provide great products for us. We are continuing to bring in these things that will keep people healthy.
CF: Don’t come in (laughs), but we’ll provide really healthy, quality food and, hopefully, some sense of normalcy through all of this. Don’t go the grocery store and hoard food. Hopefully, as this develops, we’ll be able to move into delivery and those kinds of things. Please be patient.