WARMINGTON: Pandemic Pickle leaves city’s restaurants over a Barrel

When the Pickle Barrel opened at Yonge and Dundas in 1981 a Trudeau was prime minister.

Same goes when it closed its doors four decades later. There were six prime ministers in between Pierre and Justin and the legendary Toronto eatery has been a consistent landmark in the heart of Toronto.

Until now.

“It’s devastating,” Peter Higley, the restaurant group’s president, said Friday. “It’s not easy to see it go.”

Higley began working there as a teenager in 1983 and went on to run the whole chain.

“I started as a bus boy,” he said proudly.

A decade later he became an ownership partner and today is teamed up with Cara Foods as president.

Back when he was clearing tables he never dreamed of supervising 14 locations across the province. or that one day he’d have to close the restaurant’s famous flagship location at 312 Yonge St.

It happened Monday.

“That second lockdown was just a dagger for the business,” said Higley. “We just could not find a way to make it in that location anymore.”

“Since the start of the pandemic, food service operators have made major investments in new procedures, training, personal protective equipment and other means to ensure the highest levels of safety for their staff and patrons,” he said. “Government should be doing everything possible to help them avoid the devastating consequences of indoor dining closures so they can continue contributing to the economic and social fabric of their communities.”

It wasn’t all that long ago the Pickle Barrel put $5 million into the Yonge and Dundas location. The decision to go back into a modified Stage 2 lockdown put the nail the coffin.

The other Pickle Barrel locations will soldier on while the one that has been operating in the Atrium since Darryl Sittler was captain of the Maple Leafs, Art Eggleton was Mayor, Paul Godfrey was metro chair, Anne Murray’s Could I Have this Dance won the Juno and Christopher Cross’s Sailing won the Grammy closes forever.

It’s just another sign the city’s economy is in a pickle and the future of Toronto hospitality is over a barrel.

The hydro bill alone is $12,000 a month, never mind downtown rent.

“You can’t make your bills when there is no one in the office towers, there’s no tourists, no one in for business in the hotels and no one on the street,” said Higley. “This is a sad day and it hurts.”

They were planning to celebrate the Pickle Barrel’s 40th year in that location next year.

“The landlord wanted to help us and we were working on a new lease,” said Higley. “But there was no viable way to keep it going.”

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Friday they were moving out equipment. Just like that four decades and millions of customers later, the Pickle Barrel location is history — another icon gone thanks to COVID-19 and the city’s and province’s management of the pandemic.

With more than 100 restaurants closed during this nightmare, which one will be next?

“The prognosis for (restaurants and hospitality in) Toronto is not good,” said Higley. “The pandemic has really taken it’s toll.”

The first shutdown was catastrophic but “we were all really starting to climb out of it.” Then the hammer came down that still has restaurant owners telling anybody who will listen was not necessary. The industry has asked Premier Doug Ford for a better explanation for the new 28-day closure.

“Restaurants deserve to see the data driving decisions impacting their operations and have a chance to work with government on solutions to keep their dining rooms open,” Restaurants Canada President and CEO Todd Barclay said Friday.

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