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Apr. 3, 2020 | Friday
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COVID-19: Sandtrap feels the love but forced to close, for now
A scene not often seen in Niagara-on-the-Lake: The Sandtrap pub empty during dinner hours, with chairs all packed up. (Richard Harley/Niagara Now)

 NOTL's Sandtrap Pub and Grill closed temporarily Monday due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It is with heaviest of hearts that we have decided to close the pub until further notice," owners Paul and Matt  Dietsch said in a social media post.

"With COVID-19 having a stronghold on our country, we feel like the safest course of action for our staff, customers, friends and community is to close."

On Saturday night, while the Sandtrap was still operating with limited hours for takeout only, The Lake Report got an inside look at how one popular NOTL business was adapting to life in the era of COVID-19.

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On Saturday evening, operating on limited hours, Sandtrap co-owner Matt Dietsch is trying to manage takeout calls while also keeping things safe for customers and staff.

Saturday is a busy time for restaurants, normally. But these aren't normal times.

“It’s not too bad, it’s different,” Dietsch says in the midst of the takeout dinner service.

“All the chairs are up. We moved a bunch of the chairs and tables out of here so that people when they come for their takeout can feel like they can get their distance from each other and practise the social distancing part of it, while still being able to at least come out and get some dinner.”

Takeout orders have been fairly brisk. “A lot of people are stopping in and picking up stuff for their neighbours. We’re offering curbside pickup for people that don’t feel comfortable coming in. We’re trying to do as much as we can to still provide our food for service.”

“Last night was our first Friday night being closed, and Friday is, of course, one of the biggest days at the Sandtrap year-round. And it was a pretty busy takeout.”

With people coming home from their winters away, and with some grocery stores being “bare bones,” it’s nice to be able to offer a place for people to get a meal.

“At least they know they can get a hot meal from us if they can’t get out to the grocery store.”

The restaurant has been trying to provide a safe experience for everyone. "There was a point (Friday) night where we felt like we had too much stuff coming in, so we just had to take the phone off the hook because we didn’t want too many people coming in at the same time."

That's because "social distancing is how we’re going to fight this and how we’re going to win.”

Many servers had to be laid-off due to the pub's reduced hours. And no one knows what the next few days hold.

“Every day is a guess, right? What’s the press conference from the premier going to be today? We’re thankful that we’ve got great, loyal customers who want to support us and want to support our staff. We’ve got 24 mouths that we help feed every week and it was tough — we had to lay a bunch of servers off," he says.

"We’ve slowly started to call some of them in here and there to help us over the afternoon takeout period, just so that we could run it efficiently and we could get them some hours, and people have been really gracious about leaving nice tips for them. They know that times are tough and they’re not getting the hours so they’re leaving a little extra something for them.”

As far as the community support goes, Dietsch says it’s been great to hear from people who appreciate the pub trying to continue operations.

“It’s really humbling for us, too, to have kind words from the community, as to ‘Thank you for being open. We couldn’t get anything to eat and you’re basically giving us that option,' ” he says.

“We’re basically the local neighbourhood pub and Paul and I love supporting the community when the time comes and I think they’re just sorta trying to show a little bit of that support back.”

He says that so far there have been enough takeout orders to keep the business going.

“It’s enough business to pay the rent and to pay the bills and to pay a few wages. We’ve got a couple of our kitchen staff that we didn’t have to lay off, so that’s good."

Revenue is down substantially, to about 55 per cent of what it normally is.

“Fifty-five per cent doesn’t feed the mouths, unfortunately, and so far there hasn’t been a ton of government incentives that have come available yet,” he says.

Joe Benevento, a regular customer at the Sandtrap, was picking up a pizza Saturday evening. He says he was showing support to the local business and isn’t too worried about the risk in town right now.

“It’s good to support the community in these bad circumstances,” he says.

Gayle Hanlon, who runs and delivers Coffee News to the pub, saiys she applauds the Dietsch brothers for staying open. “The people at the Sandtrap are excellent and the food is wonderful and it’s so brilliant that they are making sure everybody has what they need and has a place open that is serving all the locals. They’re putting themselves at risk to be there every day,” she says.

“I applaud all the restaurant workers and the gas station attendants and all those people that keep everything going and make us feel comfortable and safe and happier at this time when it’s hard to find things that we’re happy about.”

She says right now it’s important for people to think about what they can do, instead of what they can’t do. 

“And the people here at the Sandtrap are giving us the comfort and knowledge that hey, it’s not the end, it’s just another glitch and a hiccup and we’ll get through this together 'cause we’re all in the same boat,” Hanlon says.

“All these different restauranteurs, the care, the concern, the consideration, the care for their employees, their patrons, everything, it’s been really great and heartwarming.”

Peter Perron, another regular at the Sandtrap, says it’s important to give back to the community right now.

“It means a lot. You go out to help the people that are your neighbours. It’s your local bar, it’s your local pub, it’s your local restaurant. If you don’t support your neighbours, they go out of business then they’re not there,” he says.

“And you try to do that all around the neighbourhood. Whether you go to Tim Hortons or Starbucks, you have to help as many people as you can."

He says he supports the Sandtrap not only because the Dietsch brothers are friends, but because they are also big supporters of the community.

“They’re friends, they’re people that contribute to the community big time. It’s time to give back to them, as much as you can in this time where you’re sort of quarantined and all over the place.”

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The phone is ringing off the hook. “This is the witching hour, sort of between 5 and 6. It’s dinner hour,” says Dietsch.

He can't predict if things will change.

“Every day is a new day, and every day is evolving. If it comes to the point where we feel like it’s really endangering our staff and our customers then we’ll close the doors."

If the business is forced to close permananently, well, no one really wants to think about that. It would mean tough times.

“Ten days ago, who knew any of this was going to come to light,” he says. His big worry is the pub's staff.  “Our staff are our family and we want to be open so that we can feed some of their mouths. It’s crazy times because unfortunately what’s going to follow this next is probably going to be quite a big recession. And for a town that depends on its tourism, who knows?”

In the community, he urges everyone to do their part. “Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash yours hands. Say hi instead of hug. Call instead of visit. All these little things that we can do just to help flatten the curve, as they say.”

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