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JOEL JULIEN

As of midnight on May 31, a total of 35,156 people registered for the Salary Relief Grant, according to data from the Ministry of Finance.

The Finance Ministry’s E-Portal data, which tracked the registration process, divided the applicants into 11 different sectors.

When the data was calculated, one sector stood in the unenviable position of being head and shoulders above the rest; the food/restaurant services.

The food/restaurant services sector accounted for 15,035 people or 43 per cent of those seeking financial assistance from the Finance Ministry.

This was close to 1,500 people more than the second nearest sector; retail outlets.

In the over 15 months since T&T recorded its first COVID positive case, restaurants and food places in this country have been ordered closed, allowed to operate curbside and delivery only, allowed 50 per cent capacity in-house dining, before eventually being closed again.

The latest restriction imposed by the government to help stop the spread of COVID-19 came last month when Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley announced a total closure of all restaurants, including the immediate halt of food outlets offering pre-packaged food for sale.

One of the restaurants that has felt the impact of the restrictions was the More Vino.

On Valentine’s Day in 2005 More Vino opened up its Ariapita doors.

Initially a retail store, the concept was redirected to a wine bar.

In 2009, “More Sushi” was created and it is now known as More Vino More Sushi showcasing a wide array of sushi, wine, spirits and cocktails.

With the success of the Ariapita Avenue’s location, it was decided to branch out to San Fernando and offer another experience to another part of the country.

More Vino More Sushi opened on December 21, 2011, fully equipped with a downstairs and upstairs dining area and outdoor decking.

This year marked 16 years since More Vino’s existence.

But the last year has been one of the hardest for the restaurant.

Speaking to the Business Guardian, David Stone, one of the restaurant’s owners, said the pandemic continues to substantially impact More Vino and the restaurant industry as a whole.

“With good reason, the dine-in market has been non-existent for many months when it was not allowed. The other months we were allowed to open without alcohol. This affects a restaurant like us where this source of revenue is part of the business model,” Stone said.

“Thankfully, we already had an established takeaway market prior to COVID which has kept us afloat in these times,” he said.

Stone said the “fluid closing time regulations” also resulted in shorter times that the business was allowed to operate.

One of the things Stone is happy about is that despite the financial constraints, the restaurant has not had to get rid of any staff.

And this remains the ultimate goal, he said.

“We are very appreciative that we did not have to lay off any staff members since COVID began. This remains a high priority for us. The economic downfall as a result of COVID has caused many businesses to shut down and many people to lose their job. Along with losing lives, this is heartbreaking,” Stone said.

Stone said from a business standpoint, when total disposable income decreases, this affects all restaurants.

He added with all the changes that have taken place, the restaurant had to adapt.

“It has been such a fluid situation. One month you are fully open, one month you are open for takeaway and then one month the business is closed. There has been a lot more planning, strategising and micromanaging involved to ensure the survival of the business,” he said.

“I think that the most important aspect for all of us to adapt to would be our attitude toward the situation. It’s very easy to get frustrated and despondent about the regulations placed on the restaurant industry over the past year and three months. We all have to find that motivation and creativity to carry on and make it through,” Stone said.

When Dr Rowley announced the closure of restaurants in April, More Vino found what they thought was a viable alternative.

This, however, was short-lived.

“The latest shutdown of restaurants resulted in a pivot move into the distribution of prepackaged sushi to Linda’s Bakery and other suppliers. This motivation came from our staff and our customers. Even though it was short-lived due to further regulations, we were very happy about what we accomplished with this venture and the extremely positive feedback from a wider audience,” Stone said.

While the entire period has been a challenging one Stone said the greatest challenge “has been the uncertainty of the entire situation.”

“Each time regulations changed it involved another challenge. As soon as things settled for a bit, another change occurred. The business could receive tens of thousands of stock on a Wednesday and on Thursday you are not able to operate,” Stone said.

“We all know the saying ‘as of midnight tonight’. The short notice of change each time made it difficult especially in a business with perishable items. The financial implications due to the COVID regulations is a major challenge. Continuous monitoring of the cash flow statement became a high priority with the constant changes,” he said.

Stone added More Vino believes that dine-in may not open until late this year or next year.

And as such the company intends to utilise some of the measures it had to implement during the pandemic which were a hit for customers.

“We will continue to operate with curbside pickup and delivery once these are allowed to open. Additionally, we will continue our nationwide distribution service of prepackaged sushi and other items to Linda’s Bakery and other strategic partners,” Stone said.

“We have some other exciting plans in store but we will not reveal these just as yet,” he said.

Fingers crossed, Stone said he hopes that the restaurant industry can reopen by the end of July amid the increased vaccinations.

“We look forward to having our staff back out and satisfying our customers once again,” he said.