Despite COVID-19 having a significant impact on his business, the owner of Pita Basket has committed to providing free meals to those in need.
Rowad Shehir – who goes by the moniker Chef Ro – said he feels fortunate that his business can continue to operate during the pandemic, and because of that, he wanted to do something to help the community.
“I believe in good karma,” he said.
Anyone in need of a meal may contact the restaurant to pre-arrange a pickup time for their food, Chef Ro said, so that it is not interfering with Pita Basket’s regular business, and pickup times are being confined to the noon hour or near the end of business hours. At a certain point, Chef Ro said he may need to impose some sort of limit on the amount of free meals he hands out per day, but so far, he hasn’t done that.
“All we ask is, don’t take advantage of us because we’re not doing our best either, but we’re willing to help as much as we can,” he said.
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COVID-19 has impacted Pita Basket in “a big way,” Chef Ro said, with business at the restaurant down by at least 50 per cent. Like other restaurants, Pita Basket is no longer allowed to have dine-in customers, and because of the it's size, must limit the number of people inside at any one time.
“Our whole day is compressed into three hours, to be honest,” he said. “From 4 to 7 p.m. is a really, really, really busy time. The rest of the day is pretty slow.”
During that peak period, the restaurant is only accommodating pre-orders. Chef Ro said customers must call the restaurant to be queued in a “call back list.” A staff member will then phone back to take their order, and gives the customer a time to pick up their food. Customers are only admitted into the store one at a time, at which point they pay and leave.
“It did take us about a week or two to adjust and build a new system, because it’s a whole different game,” Chef Ro said.
Outside of those peak hours, the restaurant will allow one or two people into the store at a time to place orders.
Pita Basket employees are also now required to wear masks at work, even though that measure is not yet mandatory for food service workers in Alberta.
“We wanted to do that because I’m putting myself in other people’s shoes,” Chef Ro said. “If I was eating from another restaurant, the only way I’d feel very comfortable is if everybody’s wearing masks and everything looks very clean.”
The restaurant had to layoff some part-time staff members, but Chef Ro said he’s been fortunate that he’s been able to bring some people back.
While many of the changes implemented due to the coronavirus will likely not continue following the pandemic, Chef Ro said he’s found great success with one new addition – an online ordering system.
“We never had an online ordering system before, because we already had enough flow through the restaurant,” he said. “As soon as this started and we were only doing pickups and deliveries, we built an online system right away. It’s been a few weeks now, and that’s something that I regret I didn’t have before. It’s really great and pretty efficient.”
Above all, Chef Ro said Airdrie customers need to continue to support local businesses during the pandemic in order to ensure their long-term viability. Without customers, restaurants like his won’t be able to survive.
“Support local and keep your community strong,” he said.