Today, we’re sitting down with restaurateur Justin Tisdall to learn about the challenges he faced running his three restaurants, Beetbox, Juke Fried Chicken and Chickadee, through the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

Justin Tisdall: I think the first indication of trouble was when the World Health Organization labelled COVID-19 a global pandemic. Thankfully, we were in the process of adjusting our business model, as we were already planning for the worst-case scenario.

TF: What steps have you taken to mitigate the impact of COVID-19?

JT: We’ve taken part in quite a few of the government programs, including the Canada Emergency Business Account and we encouraged many of our current and former staff to apply for the CERB when it was first announced. We’re also taking part in the Wage Subsidy program to help keep our staff on the books. Unfortunately, we were not eligible for the rent subsidy, as we were not short enough on sales between both Juke Fried Chicken and Beetbox. Since our businesses were already well-positioned for takeout and delivery platforms, we didn’t have to experiment with new ways of doing things.

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

JT: At Beetbox, my partner and Chef Bryan Satterford had the idea of launching a line of ‘Beetbox Essential Pantry Items’ — housemade sauces, condiments and other items you could refrigerate. This took off much better than we even expected and has had great momentum.

At Juke, we cut down on some of the items available on our food menu, which helped keep our labour and prep costs low, and overall helped us better focus on what we do best.

TF: Can you tell us about employee morale?

JT: We launched several initiatives to boost employee morale at our restaurants, and to help support other restaurants during this time. Immediately, for any of our staff members who chose to continue to work, we offered a free meal every shift from either of our locations so they could bring home meals and not have to go grocery shopping as much. We also launched a bi-weekly DoorDash gift card raffle so a staff member could support another local independent restaurant.

We’ve been quite fortunate to still be fully operational at Juke. We began a charitable initiative called “Industry Mondays” where up to $500 of sales every Monday from 5pm to 6pm were donated to a local charity or cause that benefitted hospitality workers who were short of work due to the pandemic. Since the initiative began in April, we’ve been able to donate more than $5,000 to several different local initiatives.

TF: Tell us about your restart plans.

JT: We made a major shift at Juke in June, rebranding and reopening the dining room as ‘Bar Chickadee’ — an ‘80s-themed cocktail car. We offer a reduced-contact experience that involves contact-free ordering and payment through our website and a downloadable app as well as divided tables, limited seating and unique window partitions. We still offer Juke’s take-out food, but in this new reality of going out in the age of COVID world, we took measures to make this experience as contactless as possible.

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

JT: We are extremely conscious of health and safety for our employees and customers, so we’ve gone to great lengths to not only meet but exceed the WorkSafeBC-mandated steps in terms of recommended and required health and safety protocols. However, the added cost of personal protective equipment, physical barriers such as plexiglass, and the costs of goods increasing through other providers has been a real struggle.

TF: What do you consider to be the ‘new normal’ for your business?

JT: The atmosphere at both businesses will definitely be different, as you can no longer mingle. Party sizes are much smaller and being served with masks is definitely a different reality than before. All that said, we’re committed to offering the same friendly, attentive and fun service that we always have — it’ll just look a little differently.