The Metro Vancouver Tourism and Hospitality Industry Response and Recovery Task Force has gathered stories from tourism operators in Metro Vancouver to illustrate the real challenges retailers, tour and attraction operators, hoteliers, restaurateurs and other tourism-related businesses have faced since January 2020 – from initial identification of the coronavirus through governments’ efforts to stem the spread of the pandemic.

Nuba’s co-owner, Ernesto Kut Gomez outlines the challenges he and his teams have faced, and their responses to the challenges COVID-19 presents.

Task Force: Take us through your business’ journey so far.

Ernesto Kut Gomez: Before it was recommended that businesses had to close, we saw that customer behavior was already being affected. The fear of the pandemic immediately started affecting the flow of people and the occupation of the businesses around us. At the same time, we were keeping a close eye on what was happening in China, Italy, Spain and Iran, so we knew that sooner or later we would have to be prepared to take extreme measures.

TF: What steps have you taken so far to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19?

EKG: Initially, the first steps we took were to suspend dividends to our partners and reduce the work week of executives and top management to 60 per cent salary and 60 per cent work week. We also had to lay off approximately 160 people, negotiate rents for our locations, cut expenses and so on.

We have taken part in every single government program available to us, from the wage subsidy program to the emergency loans and rent subsidy program. The rent subsidy program, however, has fallen short for us. It was not easy to convince our landlords for our three locations to apply, and the process has not been easy to implement for them.

Most of the ideas we’ve implemented to date have worked well to a certain extent, though. One thing that did not work out so well was selling toilet paper, hand sanitizer, eggs and other basics, alongside our meal kit packages. At the same time, it did help in getting the word out that we were creating new products and services for our guests.

TF: Have you found ways to innovate or pivot your business to meet new demands?

EKG: We have constantly been adapting, re-inventing and innovating during COVID times. The first thing we did was to create a menu based on the dishes that would travel well and would be easy to execute by each location. We also realized that the rates that our delivery platforms were charging were too high, so we decided to create our own delivery platform (through our website) and talked to our staff about the possibility of direct delivery. Some of our servers and cooks became our delivery people and we divided our delivery territories by restaurant so all our restaurants would have a market share and stay active. We also realized that it was safer to deliver directly, as our delivery people would go from our kitchen to your door, eliminating the risk of going to many restaurants. Furthermore, we would control the safety and health procedures ourselves. Lastly, we created great valued meal kits that could feed a family for up to 12 days. This project was quite successful, and the response was overwhelming. Single mothers, families and guests from all over were thanking us for bringing hearty quality food to their home at a fair price.

TF: Can you tell us about employee morale?

EKG: First, the return to work was voluntary and we supported any staff members that were going through life challenges. We created a communication group and all the members started contributing ideas early on. We were surprised at how many people in our company wanted to come and help and we are thankful and honored to have such an amazing staff and crew that are willing to risk their necks for our brand. Everyone has gone through ups and downs, from high level executives to our staff on the ground, so being supportive and helping each other has been key to getting through the tough times.

Today I feel we have the best communication we have ever had. We truly value the sacrifice and effort made by our Nuba family, and that is exactly how it feels like, a family.

TF: What are your restart plans?

EKG: We have been following the guidelines and added some of our own. Our intention has been to make sure our customers are as safe as possible and at the same time to try to make the service feel as normal and friendly as it usually does at Nuba. Our brand has always been committed to quality and value, so we will not be making any additional surcharges or raising our menu prices.

We have been open since the beginning (we only closed for a week), so are now going from a temporary COVID limited menu, to a menu that will be exciting for our guests and addresses new concerns and priorities. We believe people want safety, quality, traceability and freshness.

One thing that has changed, however, is how customers can view menus. They’re able to see menus on their own personal devices – and staff will instruct them to do so. This eliminates the need to print and recycle menus on a regular basis, which is also a cost-savings for us. Furthermore, we have implemented all the safety procedures required (Plexiglas dividers, face masks, additional sanitation and safety practices, etc.).

Furthermore, sustainability is engraved deep in our company’s culture and is one of our main values, so single use items are unfortunately a necessity but also a concern. We currently must provide single use items as it is a requirement and we recognize that this is the right thing to do, but we are working hard on keeping track of the footprint we are creating and being ready to move fast as the regulations relax. We see it as a temporary measure, same as COVID-19.

TF: What is your biggest concern when it comes to restarting your business?

EKG: it’s a scary race against time:  Will customer behavior be back to normal in time so we can reach sustainable sales that will allow us to face our debt and challenges?  Will this happen before the government subsidies end?  Will there be a second wave of COVID-19 that could be our kiss of death?

On one side, we have had to defer rents, with some landlords who did not want to be part of the rent subsidy program. We have depleted our war chest in the implementation of new procedures and upgrades to ensure our crew and guests are safe. We have taken on debt in the form of emergency loans and we are spending money and time in new strategies to attract guests and go back to the new normal.

On the other side, we have managed to increase our sales from 2-3% on the first week we opened to close to 45% and higher in some of our establishments this week. This has not been easy, and it has been quite costly. And while the incentives have been helpful the question remains: Will we reach a sustainable level in time?

TF: What do you think will be the ‘new normal’ for your business?

EKG: As far as we are concerned, if we follow the distancing and health guidelines, if we wear our masks and if we are responsible, there is no reason why we can’t go out and enjoy dinner with a group of friends. So, once we get past the mask, the empty tabletops and the ordering procedures, we still can have a great time and enjoy food together.  It’s up to us as restaurateurs to get creative and turn the weird into a fun experience, and it’s up to our guests and society in general to be responsible and help bring commerce back to life.  

As far as Nuba goes, we will make sure it’s safe, healthy, fun, quality, delicious and value driven. Yes, there is a new normal and it will be a little awkward at first, but it’s not that bad, and it’s not forever either. 

This pandemic has shown us ways of doing things differently – some things will be here to stay, while others are temporary. Our commitment to quality, traceable and local food will only grow more. Our meal kits are staying and growing. The delivery system we built is staying to ensure we can oversee the quality and end-to-end customer experience. Our communication structure and groups are here to stay as well. We’ve structured new lean expenses and overheads – and they’re definitely here to stay.

And of course, our amazing team is here to stay – and potentially increase. We would have not been able to survive this far and have a chance to make it without our amazing collaborators and crew, so we must keep them happy, always!