'Ready to reopen': How Tim Hortons is preparing to reinstate its seating areas

When Tim Hortons patrons are again allowed to sit in a restaurant as they enjoy their coffee and doughnuts, they'll find a different dining experience than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Crowded seating areas and food trays that touch multiple pairs of hands will be out. Enhanced sanitation protocols and barriers that separate workers and diners will be in.

"You're going to be seeing dine-in restaurants with more space between tables, frequent cleaning in-between every single use," Duncan Fulton, the chief corporate officer of Tim Hortons parent company Restaurant Brands International (RBI), told BNN Bloomberg on Tuesday.

"We want to give people the comfort that they can still come inside the restaurant with family and friends, and sit down and enjoy a meal and a coffee."

As with many restaurants, Tim Hortons found itself rapidly changing its procedures and policies in response to the emergence of the pandemic. Within a two-week span in March, the company went from ceasing to fill customers' reusable mugs to scrapping the 'Roll Up the Rim' promotion to closing all of its in-store seating.

In addition to Tim Hortons, RBI owns the Burger King and Popeyes fast-food chains.

Fulton said that "almost all" of the company's restaurants have been able to stay open for some combination of pickup, delivery and drive-thru service, and plans are in place to resume allowing dine-in customers.

"We are now operationally ready to reopen, and it's just a matter of working closely with local authorities, when they deem it's safe," he said.

Those reopenings will include a plethora of safety precautions. Jose Cil, the CEO of RBI, said Tuesday in an open letter that all employees in North American will have their temperatures taken at the beginning of their shift, and will have to wear masks and gloveswhile working. Masks could become part of the standard employee uniform at RBI chains even after the pandemic ends.

Hand sanitizer will be available for all customers, tables and chairs will be sanitized after each use, and signs will indicate which tables are meant to be used by customers and which are not, Cil said. Self-serve beverage dispensers will not be used, but restrooms will be open.

"We want Canadians who are already still using us through our drive-thru to re-enter a routine of feeling comfortable to come down on a Saturday morning and have coffee with their friends inside our restaurant, which is why there's so much focus now on getting the dining experience right," he said.

Additional precautions may be taken based on local government requirements. Alberta's recently released guidelines for reopening restaurants stipulate a maximum of six diners per table, no condiment bottles or salt and pepper shakers on tables, and physical distancing even among customers who are waiting to be seated.

WHAT ABOUT WORKERS?

Fulton said many RBI employees have faced reduced hours or temporary layoffs since the pandemic began. He said the company's sales figures were down by as much as 40 per cent in late March and early April.

The government has stepped in to help many of those workers through programs including the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which offers them $500 per week for up to 16 weeks.

Originally intended only for those who had lost all their income due to the pandemic, the benefit was later amended to include anyone earning up to $1,000 per month.

According to Fulton, this has created "a bit of friction" between RBI and its employees, particularly as the company prepares to expand workers' hours when it reopens its dining rooms.

"You've got folks that are saying, reasonably, 'I don't want to work more than 17 hours a week' because they want to maximize being able to earn money and still benefit from the government," he said.

Fulton said the majority of RBI employees "are doing the right thing, and they're coming back to work."

Many RBI locations are run by franchisees even though the restaurants themselves are leased to the company, which then sub-leases them to the franchisee. Fulton said the company is helping those franchisees with their rent costs.

Rent has been a major issue for many businesses during the pandemic, leading the federal government to create a program to cover 50 per cent of base rent costs, if landlords agree to pick up 25 per cent themselves. However, major commercial landlords say they have received payments from the vast majority of their tenants.

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