Indoor dining is not allowed in Ontario’s Stage 2 ‘road to recovery’, however the government did leave the door open for temporary patios, and the Town of Tillsonburg stepped through to approve them.
The Copper Mug was one of the first in town to open a temporary patio on the sidewalk in front of the 97 Broadway pub, and since then several others have ‘popped up.’
“People were so excited and saying ‘it’s nice to be out… it’s just nice to socialize again,'” said Doris Weiler, owner of The Copper Mug. “Everybody’s been good and patient and just enjoying the table service, the weather, the ambiance. People are definitely excited.”
The application process was “easy,” said Weiler.
“Mark Renaud (BIA executive director) was very innovative and it was his idea to offer the businesses the use of that (BIA) furniture that they had around town last year. He mentioned that to me and I jumped on it, ‘yes please!’ I was thinking eight tables, but that was not possible. Everything is specifically regulated, so there was room for four tables – two with four people, two with two people. “The Town – Geno (Vanhaelewyn), Chief Building Official – came out right away. And Dan (Locke), manager of public works, and Mark, so there was the four of us. They looked at it, gave guidelines, and did kind of a mock drawing. And mock plan, verbally. Mark brought in the tables and chairs. The next day, they came and looked at it and everything was according to standards and they approved it. So it only took four days – I was really happy with that. Everyone was good, obliging and expedient. So that was great.”
Restaurants and pubs have a long list of regulations provided by the provincial government to serve outdoor patio food. Servers wear masks. Anything on the The Mug’s patio tables, including salt and pepper shakers and laminated menus which include flyers for features and specials, must be sanitized after each service.
“It’s a lot of extra work, so we tried to take the extra stuff – like the advertising – off the tables,” said Weiler.
The Mug had its patio approved by Town staff on June 19 at 4:18 p.m. Weiler decided to wait until Saturday, June 20 to open the four-table patio with their full menu.
“It’s been good,” she nodded. “Saturday was fabulous, business was booming. As soon as Martha went outside to wipe everything down, people started coming.”
The Copper Mug patio is now open Monday to Thursday, 4-8:30 p.m., Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday, 4-9 p.m.
“I’m trying to monitor to see if there is a need for extending the hours, especially on Friday and Saturday. Even Thursday. We have regular patrons who used to come in late on Friday… maybe if we’re not open past 9 they won’t come out? It’s all just trial and error right now. It is new and we are getting the patrons, the hours just have to be fine tuned. If it’s going to be busy then of course we want to stay open. The patio has helped augment the takeout.”
Weiler is also working out her take-out and patio staffing logistics.
“I’m going to have two servers to do the patio and the inside (take-out). It’s a lot of back and forth. I’m planning on being here all week just to gauge it.”
Pre-pandemic, Weiler had 15 staff members, and with the takeout and opening of the patio she was working with four staff.
The return to ‘normal’ business operation – full indoor seating with a capacity of 97 and live entertainment – could be a long time coming.
“I’m hoping… but I’m afraid, I don’t think it’s going to be for a long time. Maybe a year? If we’re at half capacity, and the patio, that’s not too bad… but the entertainment, that’s the last thing. And we did well with entertainment.”
The Copper Mug won the 2019 Tillsonburg BIA award for Best Overall Downtown Experience, and the live entertainment was big part of that.
“The entertainment is unique – we developed our niche with the entertainment and the food. We were having entertainment every Saturday, pretty well, and people were enjoying it.”
An online livestream was held at The Copper Mug by Run for Cover, Dan Dube and Shawn Winters, that was very popular, said Weiler and she hoped to see more of it.
Financially, Weiler said she’s not ‘at the end of her rope.’
“Having been in business for 25 years, and we did have a good run, I have a line of credit available. When we had the 20 year anniversary, things started to pick up. With the competition, there’s ups and downs. I’ve been able to have some money on backup that hasn’t been used for capital expenditures, although we just renovated the bathrooms. They say, the more you make, the more you spend. I like to manage money wisely and I’ve tried to keep some money for a ‘rainy day.’ Because over the course of 25 years, there’s been rainy days, that’s for sure. It seems to go in cycles. Usually it has to do with competition, but this is definitely unprecedented.
“Basically, I’m losing a lot of money now and if I was a new business I wouldn’t be able to sustain it. The $40,000 loan, that was needed. I’m hanging in there, but there’s not really much I can do. I want to keep going so I just have to bite the bullet.”
Prices have stayed at pre-pandemic levels, she said, although they may go up in the future as expenses – cost of food – continue to rise. But it won’t be significant. It would be a reasonable, cost-of-living increase.
“I would never put a COVID tax on,” she said, emphatically shaking her head, not willing to go down a path some US restaurants have taken. “If you increase your prices, somewhere along the line, people understand. Of course prices increase, but I wouldn’t increase them large. And I’m not going to rush to increase prices… because customers are hurting too. I’m definitely not going to put a COVID premium on. To me, that’s just rude. Everybody’s affected (financially), not just the restaurants.”
In fact, Weiler has been offering customers coupons. Customers who spend $25 get a $4 coupon for their next visit.
“Just trying to help the customers,” said Weiler.
Eventually, some day, Weiler says she might consider selling the pub. But not now.
“I don’t want to be 75 and still running The Copper Mug,” she laughed, “because I want to have energy to do things properly. People have said, ‘You should have sold, you should have sold when everything was good.’ I just didn’t want to sell. I was enjoying it and I had the energy. Maybe, if I find the right buyer… because I can’t be here forever. I still might have to stay on to help them out for one or two years. I’ve been keeping a list of names, the ones who say they are interested. A lot of them are former staff, so they’ve been in the business and they’re still keen. But there’s a lot of work involved in selling.
“I’ve thought about it,” she said, especially around her last birthday. “It’s a lot of sacrifice and I’ve been doing it all of my life. It’s weekends, plus we’ve been open seven days a week. I’m always here at night, especially with the bands. It’s important, I feel, to make sure everything goes smooth. I don’t want to do it when I’m 75, I’m just trying to have some sort of quality of life.”
Life during the pandemic has almost been like a forced ‘semi retirement’ for Weiler.
“Although I’m losing a lot of money, I’m trying to look at it in a positive light… that I’m getting some sort of non-paid vacation.”
June 21st marked The Copper Mug’s official 25th anniversary. Doris and her husband Tim Weiler (1958-2018) had bought the Tillsonburg pub (not the building), which was part of the Carey’s franchise on June 21, 1995, and renamed it in January 1996.
The anniversary was not ‘celebrated’ as it might have been in normal times, but it was still an important milestone for The Mug.
“I can still have some kind of celebration, or figure something out, but there really wasn’t much point on the Sunday. Maybe once we get back to dining in. It will be a delayed, belayed anniversary celebration.”