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Restauranteurs adapt in uncertain times by creating grocery market

Bloomfield Public House owners Elliot Reynolds and Laura Borutski.

By Sharon Harrison
Bloomfield Public House, a successful new restaurant forced to close due to COVID-19, opened its doors again Monday, June 1 in its new incarnation as a market with fresh food to go and staple grocery items.

The restaurant has been a magnet for locals and visitors alike since it opened a couple of years ago under the guidance of owners Laura Borutski and Elliot Reynolds.

Temporary closure of restaurants during the COVID-19 outbreak has left many small local business owners looking for ways to survive. An already fickle industry with slim profit margins on a good day, a complete forced closure has many in the restaurant industry worried. Some have been able to adapt to accommodate take-out options with curbside pick-up or delivery.

But the future is uncertain even when they are permitted to re-open, if occupancy is limited to 50 per cent of the usual number of patrons for example – a number many restaurateurs are expecting will be enforced by the provincial government, at least to begin with.

“We decided when we bought the building, it was going to be just a great neighbourhood public house with everything made from scratch in-house, seasonal menus, great local wine list and that’s what it’s evolved into,” Reynolds explains. “We were super happy with the direction we were going and looking forward to another great year, and all of this started to happen.”

Borutski takes care of front of house operations, while chef  Reynolds creates food. They knew they needed to come up with a plan for their business. The switch to a market is a good example of how entrepreneurs are learning to adapt to a changing environment as well as unique and often unknown circumstances.

This husband and wife team had to acknowledge what was happening in their industry, and are trying to put a positive spin on the situation they find themselves in.

While they offered a take-out option during the outbreak while the restaurant was closed, they knew they needed to do more.

“It didn’t make sense also to have to wait around until Ontario decides to lift restrictions to restaurants,” says Reynolds. “And what capacity are we going to do that at, 50 per cent? We have 10 tables inside our restaurant; from a feasibility standpoint, it’s null and void.”

The pair took the first three or four weeks at the start of the outbreak to do some touch-ups in the restaurant and to take a little break.

“Laura and I just had to figure out what the best moves were in this situation,” says Reynolds. “We said, let’s start with some comfort food, so we did fried chicken,” he says. “It’s still going strong.”

He says the fried chicken has always been a staple menu item. “We’ve been doing extremely well with it for take-out.”

While the fried chicken was a hit, they knew it wasn’t enough.

“We are the type of people that we like to continually evolve and I just don’t think we’d be happy just doing one item all summer, or a couple of items, from a distance all summer long,” he says.

After a lot of thinking and strategizing, including receiving community feedback, they got their idea: a grocery store of sorts.

“We are going to have different items from A to Z, maybe a little speciality item here and there, and a lot of different County producers,” said Reynolds, adding part of the process will be adapting to what works and what people want.

Having had to lay off all their staff, about a dozen, when the outbreak first started in March, they have been able to bring the majority back.

“We just ripped our dining room out and we used our floor space of the dining room and we put in reach-in fridges that fit perfectly where we need them to fit, and we just had meetings day after day to figure it all out,” Reynolds explains.

“We really tried to put ourselves in the position of the consumers: What would I want to look for in a store, what would I need, what are people looking for?”

They also have a couple of freezers if someone wants something in a couple of days rather than for tonight for a meal, says Reynolds.

For Chef Reynolds, the change is a difficult one because the Bloomfield Public House always made everything from scratch.

“We have always had a lot of pride in doing everything in-house: every single thing was made from scratch, right down to our crackers,” he says. “The whole experience is definitely challenging us right now because there are some items that it just doesn’t make sense to make ourselves and put on the shelves, but we are really trying to make it make sense.”

For Borutski and Reynolds, it was also about providing a service to local people and a large part of the decision was about serving Bloomfield, which Reynolds acknowledges is still without any central services from one end to the other.

“Our hopes right now are that this will actually be a stopping point for a large volume for people.”

“If we can maintain the same level of standard and quality of product when we had the restaurant open as we are stocking our shelves currently, we are super happy about that,” he says.

“We want to know that someone coming in the store is going to get the same experience and they can take it home, so that’s where we are at, just trying to link it all together.”

Borutski says she hopes it will be a convenient place for people to come and grab some speciality items that aren’t in regular grocery stores.

“We we are making everything from scratch and trying to utilize as many local suppliers as we can as well. Having that fold into the community where we are able to support other people with businesses is also something that we are striving for as well which is really fun.”

Reynolds says they still have people come in and ask if they will put out simple cookies and grab-and-go stuff in the morning because people enjoy that.

“It’s difficult to do that on a daily basis if that’s not our business model; it’s really difficult to be something to everyone. We are just trying to carve out what we feel makes the most sense, instead of trying to be something to everyone.”

“This transition has really got us thinking about community and what the community needs as opposed to relying specifically on tourism,” says Borutski. “Bloomfield doesn’t have anything like this, so we feel like we are putting this building in the best public space. We are really excited trying to create a stable environment for ourselves, the community and the amazing staff we have with us. We feel the transition into a market does that for us.”

The idea of having to deal with the take-out only option in a restaurant they set-up didn’t make any sense to the duo.

“It was getting a little monotonous: we said this is not what we what to do and this is not the experience we want our guests to have,” explains Reynolds.

While they are still doing take-out, they have also started a new summer kitchen on the patio focusing on more of a southern-style kitchen barbecue theme, called Judy’s.

“When the restrictions are lifted, we will have two things going at once, we will have the market and we will still have the restaurant going, but it will be more of a summer kitchen, just seasonal. It will give us the opportunity to still keep one foot in the puddle.”

Borutski and Reynolds first came on the local restaurant scene running The Hub, a small restaurant located at Angeline’s, just down the road from where they are now.

“We had decided to take a break and literally two weeks later, the bank came on the market which we wanted to buy,” explains Reynolds. “So we bought it.”

The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce had closed its branch a week short of 62 years in operation.  He says they didn’t know a lot about the building’s former history other than it being a bank.

“It used to be a grocery store from its inception, so the former owners who bought it, Judy and Morris Jenkins, they named it Judy’s. It was the town grocery store and it was a fixture for a few years until the bank bought the building.”

It’s an interesting full-circle story knowing it will become a grocery store once again says Reynolds.

“It is a fantastic location and I feel it is one of those buildings that’s a little bit of a diamond in the rough. It needed some direction and some life put into it.“

“Judy Jenkins and her husband Morris built the building in 1949,” says Borutski. “She ran it for two years as a grocery store before selling it to the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.”

Reynolds acknowledges restaurants have always, and will always, run on small margins.

“A good operator will be successful whatever they do, so I think the moral of the entire story is you just have to understand what is happening and understand that what people are really looking for translates to a different guideline and playbook,” he says. “I think that is what is the hard part here that we are all just trying to figure it out, but you have to adapt with your own situation, so here we are.”

“There are a lot of positives in this,” he adds.

“We are really excited, it’s like breathing another new chapter into this building which is fun and a creative way to do it, and we excited for the opportunity,” says Borutski. “We are changing direction, but in a positive way.”

The Bloomfield Public House Market re-launched June 1, and will be open six days a week (closed Mondays) from 9am-6pm. Judy’s Fried Chicken and Barbecue is open on Saturdays and Sundays. They are located at 257 Main Street, Bloomfield and can be reached at 613-393-9292 and

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