When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Ontario, it threw the well-established business models of the province’s bars, restaurants, breweries and wineries into utter chaos.
That uncertainty led the province to overhaul many of its longstanding liquor laws, in a bid to keep those establishments — many of them small and locally-owned — afloat.
CBC Ottawa recently spoke to the owners of three local businesses to get their perspective on the seismic shift in the province’s alcohol regime.
Here’s what they say worked best — and what they think still needs to happen.
Who: Janet and Tom Moul of Jabulani Vineyard and Winery
The big win: Home delivery
What should come next: Fairer taxes
When the province changed home delivery rules, husband-and-wife winemakers Janet and Tom Moul jumped at the opportunity.
“We were out there delivering eight days a week,” said Tom, chatting on the physically-distanced patio set up at Jabulani Vineyard and Winery near Metcalfe.
In December, Ontario announced it would cement a change implemented earlier in the pandemic, one that allowed alcohol producers to sell directly to people via home delivery.
That change, Janet said, has meant more than half of Jabulani’s pandemic-era customers have been new ones.
“I didn’t expect that during COVID,” she said. “But Tom would go deliver, and someone would say, ‘What’s in that box my neighbour [got]?’ Next thing you know, we’ve got an order.”
If alcohol rules keep getting tweaked, the Mouls hope there will be a reassessment of the tax structure for wineries with VQA certification — short for Vintners Quality Alliance — versus non-VQA wineries like themselves.
VQA certification was brought in decades ago to ensure Ontario wines met a certain standard. But the Mouls say wineries in non-VQA-approved regions like eastern Ontario are taxed much more heavily, even though their cold-hardy grapes now make for wine that’s just as good — if not better — than places like Prince Edward County.
“We’ve been lobbying for years for it. It would be really nice because it opens doors for us,” said Janet.
Who: Josh McJannett of Dominion City Brewing Co.
The big win: Selling his friends’ products
What should come next: Cross-border sales
For Josh McJannett, co-founder of Dominion City Brewing Company, it’s felt like “90 years’ worth of legislative change” crammed into roughly 15 months.
The big one, he said, has been getting the chance to “curate” his own bottle shop.
Customers who stop by the brewery’s headquarters in Ottawa’s Gloucester area can now — in addition to Dominion City’s own offerings — pick up beer, wine and ciders from small producers across the province. Many are too small, McJannett said, to be found on the shelves of grocery stores or the LCBO.
“In many cases, we’re sharing stuff with folks that they just literally can’t get anywhere else. That’s great for us, that’s great for our fans, and that’s great for these other producers … I think everybody’s kind of winning at the moment,” said McJannett.
While those victories make it tempting to hush any criticism, McJannett would like fewer barriers to selling across provincial borders.
WATCH: How the pandemic has changed the way liquor is sold in Ontario
Just trying to stock his shop with beers from across the river in Gatineau, Que., might as well be like trying to procure it from Belgium, he said.
“We know [it’s] more complicated because it involves many different governments,” said McJannett, who already has a footprint in western Quebec thanks to his brewery’s non-alcoholic seltzers.
“But living in a country that acted like one country, where you could share what you make across provincial borders, is something that every craft brewery would love to see.”
Restaurateurs who pivoted
Who: Caroline Murphy and Emma Campbell, co-owners of Corner Peach
The big win: Alcohol to go — especially cocktails
What should come next: No backsliding
When the pandemic obliterated in-person dining, Corner Peach co-owners Caroline Murphy and Emma Campbell had to switch gears.
They turned their Somerset Street West restaurant into a bottle shop-slash-café, offering — much like Dominion City — products from small-scale producers, with the purchase of a pastry or some in-house bits and bites.
Take-out cocktails, they say, have proved especially popular.
Now, they hope Ontario doesn’t renege on its pledge that many of the rule changes introduced during the pandemic are, in fact, permanent.
If that were to happen, it could be a huge blow for the pair, who plan to resurrect their restaurant while also running the bottle shop in the former bike store next door.
“We’ve essentially taken over this space now,” said Campbell. “I think it would be pretty devastating if they took that away from us.”
“It’s bad that it had to take a pandemic to [see the laws change],” added Murphy. “But I guess maybe we can just have one good thing coming out of all this.”