Dark days likely to continue for Oakville restaurant industry

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Dark days likely to continue for Oakville restaurant industry
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Thomas Desormeaux

Thomas Desormeaux

Thomas Desormeaux is a reporter and writer who lives close to the border of Oakville and Mississauga. He has lived in the GTA for his entire life and is interested in global events, politics and government. follow on twitter @TommyDesormeaux

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“It’s overwhelming,” says Julia Hanna. “There is no playbook for what is happening to us.”

Hanna has worked in restaurants for 38 years. As the COVID-19 pandemic goes on longer and longer, it’s becoming clear that she and the other people in her industry are in trouble.

Julia Hanna owns Ritorno, an Italian restaurant at the corner of Trafalgar and Dundas. She also founded the popular Oakville restaurant Paradiso in 1993. No restaurant she’s run has ever had to close down, except for Ritorno (which she currently operates). Each restaurant she’s owned in the past has been successfully sold. She is an established entity in the GTA food industry. But, even she admits things are dire right now.

food industry oakville

“In spite of the fact that so many people are being devastated financially,” she says. “And I mean devastated, it was through no fault of their own. There was nothing that they could’ve done differently.”

The COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns have had a drastic effect on many businesses in Oakville. Especially on restaurants and stores. Physical distancing guidelines, stay at home orders and essential business classifications mean that restaurants have had to close their doors. For months they’ve only been allowed to offer service through pick-up or delivery.

“There are, in reality, industries that are going to feel this more. And the hospitality industry is probably right up there as most impacted,” says Hanna.

Shocking numbers for April

Two weeks ago, the international marketing research firm Ipsos announced that the Canadian food industry has seen a $3 billion decline since this time last year. Restaurants that mostly serve customers in-house experienced the worst effects, with Full Service Restaurants seeing a decline of 67%.

“Those numbers are so big you almost can’t take it in,” says Hanna. “For me it’s my staff, I want to get going because I want to make sure that their livelihoods are in place.”

In 2019, there were 65,000 restaurants in Canada. As of 2016, there were over 6,400 in Halton. This represents one of the biggest sectors for jobs in the region. A 47% drop in sales, as reported by Ipsos, could be devastating for Oakville.

When the province ordered non-essential businesses to close, Ritorno immediately paid out its staff so that they could be eligible for the government’s emergency benefit programs. In the month of April, employment in the Canadian food services industry declined by more than 30%.

Even with stimulus measures like the CEWS and the CECRA, some food service businesses will likely shutdown. Earlier this month, Nandos Canada announced that it would be closing 21 restaurants across Canada. This includes their Trafalgar location, only a stone’s throw away from Ritorno.


Small businesses, which Oakville has an abundance of, are even more at risk than chains. Two weeks ago, Emma’s Back Porch, a beloved Burlington bar that has sat on the lake shore for 30 years, announced that it would be closing it’s doors.

The independent restaurant industry during a pandemic

This is what keeps Hanna up at night. What will happen to Oakville’s wide array of independent restaurants? The 2016 Employment Census says two thirds of Halton businesses as independently owned. This represents over 7,500 compared to less than 3,000 branches or subsidiaries.

According to Hanna, Oakville’s strong sense of community and the financial success of many of its citizens means that a larger than normal share of the restaurant industry is small, independent businesses.

“The independent restaurants, the independent retailers, they offer a different flavour,” she says. “The chains offer consistency but there is a need as big as the sky for the independents who come in with their heart and soul to provide a unique experience and connect with their customers.”

Hanna and her family have been working hard to develop new strategies to serve Ritorno’s customers. Their business has traditionally been only 10% takeout so they will have to make some adjustments.

“We have now created a new take-out menu with meal kits and we’re going to be launching them soon,” she says.

In the meantime, she and her sons have been working in the empty kitchen, cooking up their overstock, which is being donated. Lately they’ve been preparing anywhere from 50-100 meals a week.

There has been a noted increase in people seeking help from food banks and charities during the pandemic and many shut down restaurants have been trying to help out. According to Kimberly Calderbank at Food for Life, donations from food service’s have increased by more than 100% during the “COVID Period.” The organization is now receiving more than 5,000 pounds of produce and dairy each week.


It may be essential for all restaurants to change how they do business. Even as lockdown restrictions ease, pandemic era caution is likely to continue for many months. Customers aren’t expected to be flooding businesses any time soon. Further safety measures and a shift to delivery menus will be needed for a business to remain viable in the food industry.

During the pandemic, delivery rates are up significantly. Food places that serve things like pizza and contractors like SkipTheDishes and Uber Eats are seeing a boom in orders. That being said, this increase hasn’t been enough to make up for the drops in employment or business.

When you think about the 2008-2009 recession we had, it took three years for restaurants to get back. Three years.

“We know this is going to be a long slog,” says Hanna. “When you think about the 2008-2009 recession we had, it took three years for restaurants to get back. Three years.”

More than a place to eat

In her opinion, delivery options for high quality restaurants can only go so far. If restaurants are serving Oakville like this, there will always be something missing.

“One thing I want to really emphasize, a restaurant is not just about feeding you, they are a place where people come to make their memories. People get engaged, they announce they’re having a baby. They celebrate, they mourn.”

restaurant industry Oakville

“Restaurants are a place where people come to make their memories” – Julia Hanna

One reason for optimism, in Hanna’s opinion, is the people of Oakville’s love for their restaurants. “We live in a robust community that has always supported its small businesses,” she says.

“Everyone’s keenly aware that if we are going to be optimistic, if we are going to rally, we will survive and thrive after this. But we will feel a lot of pain too.”


The Town of Oakville’s Economic Task Force is pursuing different methods to help the business community. The online app distantly.ca allows people to support small businesses through crowd funding and online donations.


Follow me on Twitter @TommyDesormeaux


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