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As cities worldwide began implementing strict social distancing measures and the shutdown of non-essential businesses seemingly happened overnight, the realization that the hospitality industry would be among the hardest hit financially started to sink in.
SugarKane Restaurant, a neighbourhood favourite for Caribbean and Cajun fare in the Danforth, went from full-service one day to a complete halt overnight. The eatery went from a lively family-run business -- that hosts local artists weekly -- to a restaurant boarded up and fighting to survive. This is a story that many restaurant owners in Toronto now share.
Back in mid-March, when Toronto essentially shutdown to try and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, restaurants were left with no other choice but to determine how they were going to stay afloat. It was a confusing and uncertain time for SugarKane's owners, three sisters, Nicole, Renée and Donna, who poured their savings, heart and soul into opening SugarKane only a year prior. It was hard for them to accept that everything was coming to a standstill.
SugarKane's owners, three sisters, Nicole, Renée and Donna.
At the beginning, restaurants were attempting to contact food delivery services but due to the high volume of requests, it was difficult to get in contact with these companies. "We went from full service and March 14th we completely stopped. We tried the takeout thing for one weekend but at that point everyone was trying to contact the delivery services like Uber Eats. We still haven't heard back from SkipTheDishes since we contacted them in March," explained Nicole.
Even though the sisters were able to eventually set up delivery through Uber Eats, the large percentage that was taken from each order was not worth it at the time. After one weekend of service through Uber Eats, the sisters decided they were better off shutting their doors until a later date.
"It's nerve racking because my self and my two sisters have put everything into this. Just not knowing anything, not knowing if we are going to get any additional help is stressful," Nicole shares. "When we paid rent in April, that was everything we had. It is thousands of dollars and we think to ourselves, how will we come up with the cash every month."
The women behind SugarKane care first and foremost about their families and their business. At this time, all they can do is push forward and try to hope for better days in the future. Although there is government assistance to help businesses like theirs, receiving money they know they will have to pay back eventually has been equally stressful.
SugarKane has opened back up for delivery on DoorDash and Uber Eats, as well as for takeout orders directly through the restaurant. It is uncertain when things will fully go back to normal but right now they are operating solely for their customers.
"People are coming by and supporting. People that were regulars before have been expressing how much they miss us. People are just being generous. One time we got a $20 tip and another $30 tip," Nicole recounts. "Any little bit helps and we are just so grateful to serve again."
Currently, the restaurant is operating at zero profit but the sisters wanted to return to what they love doing most and missed serving the people in the community. Their food is delicious home-style Caribbean fare with a spicy Cajun kick. They care about the quality of their food and their customer's overall satisfaction.
Jambalaya with jumbo shrimp, andouille sausage, cajun chicken and sweet peppers tossed in a bold creole tomato sauce.
Braised oxtail bowl with rice and peas, apple coleslaw and plantains.
This is their third week since coming back to the restaurant and so far it has been going okay. "We are going back into the business so we can stay afloat, so if the government does say we can go back we are not closed by then, we are just trying to keep our heads above water," Nicole explains.
Toronto is a city that is known for its food and cultural diversity. "We are on the Danforth and it is filled with so many small restaurants and businesses and it is so sad to see that some of them are permanently gone, homeless right now. Toronto needs these businesses, this is what we are all about."
It has been difficult for the sisters. Nicole remarks that, "Some days have been good and some days have been not so good. It has made us stronger and closer because we have been working together to get through this. We are hopeful and we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We hope that everything goes through and works out."