Residents of Ottawa, Ontario may know of Zak’s Diner, The Grand Pizzeria, Metropolitan Brasserie and Zak’s Cantina, but may not know that they all share a common owner. Sofia and John Borsten, owners of all of the previously mentioned restaurants, have a great deal of experience with navigating the restaurant industry. Despite their experience, the COVID-19 pandemic presented them with unprecedented challenges to overcome, forcing them to get creative in the way they operate their restaurants.
Zak’s Diner opened its first location in 1986 and has opened two additional locations since then. Serving classic diner food and famous milkshakes for 24 hours each day, Zak’s has been an Ottawa favourite for 35 years. Their location on Elgin Street had its grand opening last November, leaving them in a frustrating position for the pandemic. Since all government aid was distributed based on sales from the previous year, Zak’s on Elgin was unable to qualify for most of the government aid packages. Owner Sofia Borsten stresses that this was a major flaw in the aid efforts by the Canadian Government.
“We just opened our Elgin location in November, but all grants were based on sales from last year,” Explains Sofia. “This goes for all new businesses across Canada. These new businesses are the ones that need the help the most, but can’t receive any due to the qualification process.”
The adjustment to implement all the COVID measures was a process of trial and error for Zak’s Diner. After the initial closure period when the restaurant could only do takeout and delivery, Zak’s re-opened for dine-in and extended their patio to compensate for the reduced capacity. When they opened the patio, they initially changed the entire server system. People would go up to counter, order and pay, and then the food would be brought to the table. After merely 30 minutes they realized that people didn’t want that minimal human interaction when dining in, and they reverted to using their servers to take orders at the tables. As for the operating hours of the restaurant, they had to reduce their hours during the first few months of the pandemic but are planning to go back to their 24-hour service as of next week.
A big frustration for the owners of Zak’s Diner and other local businesses are the restrictions in place for restaurants, in comparison to the restrictions in place for big box stores. When mandated closures were first announced, the government allowed big companies such as Walmart and Costco to stay open (deemed essential) but forced small local shops and restaurants to close. Canadians were spending money at the big retail stores since the small players were closed, and this caused small businesses to lose their seasonal sales which often carry them through the winter.
“During these times it’s critical to try to support local as much as you can,” Stresses Sofia. “Be sure to help your neighbourhood shops, as it’ll help us all at the end of the day.”
For more information on Zak’s Diner, please visit https://www.zaksdiner.com/eat-at-zaks/.