Bullock’s Bistro is proving that adaptability is necessary if a business is to last 30 years and counting, let alone last through a pandemic.
Like numerous businesses in Yellowknife, Bullock’s was laid low by Covid-19 and closed from March 17 until June 13.
The situation pushed the iconic restaurant to prove its mettle and it has come out on top, though it finds itself in what owner Jo-Ann Martin calls a “new normal” since it reopened.
Business has shrunk compared to pre-Covid times.
Martin estimates her revenues are down by a “bit over 50 per cent,” owing to the decimation of tourism and physical-distancing protocols that require the restaurant to operate at 50 per cent capacity.
“We rarely get to that capacity because we have three-person, four-person and six-person tables. If all the tables are (used) we might only have eight to 10 people in here,” she said.
Some customers are better than none, but Martin said the hardest thing to face with business during Covid is the altered sense of community in the eatery.
The furniture and format inside has been rearranged to facilitate physical distancing. Some tables were removed and everything had to be spaced apart by six feet. The open-kitchen format was changed when a curtain was put up to separate the kitchen from the dining area.
Martin said the cooks miss being able to chat with people while they’re working.
“Bullock’s was always a place of gathering and a place where people would share a meal and a story,” she said. “Whether it’s a family or a community. Coming back now there’s no communal portion to it. Everything is separate and everything has to be divided. It takes away a little bit of that comfort from everybody being together. We’re getting settled now. You can still have a conversation now but we have to stand a few feet away from someone. Hopefully one of these days we’ll be able to sit two parties at a table together and have good food and good company.”
Financially, Martin said it’s going to be a “non-profit year for us for sure, but I think we’ll be able to pay our bills. Business-wise I think we’re fortunate we live where we do because of the programs the government has provided. It has given us a bit of room to be this slow and still operate.”
Before Covid, the restaurant would go through about 150-200 lbs of fish on a busy day. Now it rarely reaches 100 lbs.
“That obviously trickles down to the fishermen. (But) we’re making it work. I have no complaints,” Martin said.
Her staff numbers have rebounded more than food volumes. In March, she laid off all of her staff of 13 and in June hired back 10 of them.
Seeing them come back was “exciting.”
“I think everyone was going through withdrawal. When you work here, you’re very social. You need social and animated people here,” she said. “When the customers came in it was a huge deal for us.”
While all that might sound like a somewhat tough piece of fish to swallow, the new normal has a flip side.
“It’s definitely different with the lack of tourism in town. But on a positive note we’re seeing a lot of visitors from the NWT and Nunavut and it’s nice to see a change in the clientele,” she said. “We see locals along with visitors normally, and usually they’re from other parts of the world. But now we have more time to have a conversation with someone from Norman Wells or Fort Smith and hear about the things going on in their communities in the NWT and not on a world scale. It’s really cool. Because we have 50 per cent capacity, you have more time to chat with people. It’s a little bit of a different business model for us for sure. But we seem to be doing OK and enjoying it.”
Fewer customers also means a less hectic pace of work. Staff have more time to do their tasks, making it easier to fit in the required sanitation measures between customers coming and going.
Bullock’s baked its own bread before Covid, but now staff time have time to bake even more bread.
“We’ll put out whatever the cook feels like making that day, like a veggie bread thing or a carrot cake. It’s like a pop-up bakery. We’re making a lot more bread now than we were before. Our bread sales are doing well. It’s making up for some of the loss of business during the day and it’s bringing in more people or people who wouldn’t normally come through. It’s a good way to keep touching base with people,” Martin said.
The more open schedule has also given Bullock’s the opportunity to make and sell more of its own herb and garlic salad dressing and teriyaki fish sauce.
Martin’s husband, and Bullock’s co-owner Mark Elson partly filled the downtime when the restaurant was closed by cooking and testing more of the sauces. When the GNWT’s health department approved the sauces for sale outside of the restaurant in mid-May, Bullock’s began selling it to stores in Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith.
“It will help supplement some of the loss of business from the restaurant,” Martin said “We’re looking at getting a proper processing facility for it so we can move into more markets. We’re producing about 500 bottles a week,” giving a revenue bump of about 10 per cent.
Martin is realistic about the rest of the year and isn’t expecting the tourists to suddenly come back or for the Covid restrictions to be lifted tomorrow.
“We’re prepared for this state for the rest of the year and into next year. It will force us to be even better at planning and budgeting and being able to change things on the fly.”
Whatever the future holds, she’s grateful that the support of the community and work of her staff have brought Bullock’s to where it is now.
“One of the things I’m proudest of is my staff and how they’re working hard to adapt to things,” she said. “They’ve been forced to change and they’ve taken on the challenge. We’ve had to rethink how we do a lot of things.”