It was March 17 of last year when Nicole Hogg sat down to write layoff notices to her staff. She was in tears. Her staff were like family, and in one case it was her family — her brother Michael worked as bartender and server. If there is another lockdown, it will be the third time she’s had to do this.
Nicole and chef Shawn Gilbert made a pact in those early days of COVID: if they had to put on hazmat suits, they’d call it quits. She’s come close to it at times throughout the year.
Little did they know what was to come.
The lightening speed at which everything changed was dizzying. Like so many other restaurants, Atmosphere café + etc moved quickly online to survive. From lockdowns to partial openings, regulation changes as colour-coded restrictions came into play — all this newness came at them hard and fast.
By the spring, reliance on a patio setup to survive saw her take a petition to the public, eventually allowing an extension comparable to others.
There was the PPE, cleaning supplies, and new print materials to design and order. Written instructions on food preparation to be inserted into boxes for Heat and Serve meal kits, labels to be made, bags and boxes to be bought and stamped.
With already slim margins becoming more lean, Nicole and Shawn assessed and then pared down their food ordering. Some of the most popular menu items had to go for efficiencies, new ones were added. No overhead necessitated creativity. They’ve added items that would sell out to reduce any threat of food loss.
One year on, and it’s been a wild dance just to keep Atmosphere café + etc. afloat.
Getting creative has been key to keep people interested and aware of their offerings: Meal kits, brunch boxes, gourmet home kits, cocktail kits and initiatives like a grab n’ go window for quick pickups of smaller offerings. The list goes on.
The constant pressure on Nicole as owner of the cafe since those beginning days of the pandemic has shown up in multiple ways. A recent mailer in Canada Post saw her revert to “old school” advertising, the relentless pace of social media posting, an enhanced newsletter — all methods to get the word out and gain a new audience. She is dancing as fast as she can.
It’s been a curious balance of distress and sheer adrenaline, peppered with deep appreciation for the clientele the restaurant has fostered over the years who’ve helped keep them going.
As with all things COVID, so much good has come of this year. Those regulars who helped keep money in the bank, the amplified camaraderie between neighbour businesses already supportive of each other. The happy result of scaling back in product reduced waste. Collaborations with breweries, and wonderful initiatives like Freeze it Forward with The Morris Team have all added up to steady traffic for Atmosphere Café + etc.
Support from the larger community has been heartwarming too. Gift Certificates have sold well, and Nicole sees people being generous with tips which means they get it. Prompted by need, she now pays her limited staff more than a living wage.
On the eve of Atmosphere’s seventeenth anniversary in January of this year, Nicole posted this on her Instagram feed:
"…it’s Friday night and the bar has been put to bed at 6 pm. As the scene settles in, I think how wildly different this is. “Back in the ol’ days”, we would be anticipating the hustle of a busy Friday evening service rush, all cylinders running on high, everyone alert and attentive to provide an exceptional customer experience. But now the people - my favourite part of being a restaurateur - are missing…so, cheers to being 17, Atmosphere! Have a drink “with us” tonight. We will get through this, we are resilient, we are determined. We have new memories to make, and we hope to see you inside soon!"