Through the storm

Simone Mombourquette and Chef Terry Vassallo.

COVID has been a hurricane of uncertainty for restaurateurs — the successful survivors behind Mappatura Bistro look ahead

Alongside the tiny bar on the left of Mappatura Bistro’s front door hangs a multi-picture frame. Moments preserved in time.

At the top is a photo of the staff taken on what would be the restaurant’s last night of service before the first COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020. In it, staff crammed into the small stainless-steel kitchen look to the camera with smiles and uncertainty. They knew something unusual was afoot but would never imagine how quickly the world would change.

The very last night before the end of the world 
For Simone Mombourquette, who owns Mappatura with partner (and chef) Terry Vassallo, the last weekend before the pandemic forced the world to pause evokes vivid memories. 

That Friday, emails began hitting her inbox, cancelling their daughter’s extracurriculars. 

The restaurant, however, had a full house that night. Mombourquette didn’t work, but says staff told her customers didn’t seem overly affected. She thinks that’s likely because everyone lacked a frame of reference. For most, nothing in the past affected our lives the way COVID would. 

“We were not quite sure what we were dealing with. So, life was going on,” says Mombourquette. But “it just felt like, wow, something’s going down.” 

Saturday night, Mombourquette worked. And the restaurant was jam-packed, like a tin of sardines, she recalls. People were seated right to the end of the communal table. 

“It was incredible,” she adds. “I’ll never forget it. There was no talk about what was going on outside of these walls. People were having a good time. They were happy, joyous, like the last kick of the can.” 

The end of the world as we knew it 
Every year during March break, Mombourquette and Vassallo go to the Prince George for a night with their daughter. 

By the time they made it back to Mappatura on Monday, the list of local closures had only grown. The next day, on March 17, bars and restaurants joined the closures, though restaurants could offer takeout and delivery. 

“We were just kind of shell shocked,” says Vassallo. “Honestly, the first thought on our mind was our staff. Here are these people that are just like family to us, and the floor has just fallen out from underneath them.” 

When the hammer fell, being able to come through for their staff was a “huge, huge worry,” said Mombourquette. She says their first thought was, “Do we have enough money to pay our staff? Yes.” Next, “What about our suppliers?” Mombourquette said they started with the small ones “just like us,” who depend on their businesses for survival. 

“We didn’t know if there would be an industry to come back to,” says server Maggie Phillips (left). “And it was terrifying.” Photo: Bruce Murray

Before the plague
“Terry and Simone are the most lovely people to work with and for,” says Maggie Phillips, a career server with Mappatura since it opened in 2016, “because of their years of experience of working with other people. And for other people. They’ve just taken all the things they’ve learned, the good and bad. And they create a really nice place to work because of that.”

As with many restaurants, there was a lot of hype when Mappatura first opened. Often that initial burst lulls when the shine wears off. Things eventually plateau for the restaurants that stick around and then level off. 

When the pandemic hit, Mappatura was about 3.5 years old. It survived the opening frenzy and ensuing dip. And in the months just before the shutdown, says Mombourquette, the business became “very solid and steady.”

Phillips adds: “It was a lot of very familiar faces every week. It was chaos, in a great way.”

Busy is good for a small business, especially one that supports an entire family and a small staff. One declaration of emergency later, all that was all gone. The chaos, however, was far from over.

Fortunately, Mappatura had already been tinkering with the idea of adding some takeout options before the government-mandated shutdown. Mombourquette had even started building the menu, so when dine-in was no longer an option, she could focus on making to-go happen.

If they’d had to close entirely, she explains, the revenue loss would have finished Mappatura: “Most small, independently owned restaurants don’t have that buffer … I feel like we slipped into a different mode. Survival mode, you know? And by Thursday, we were doing takeout.”

Running a small business requires a fair amount of nimbleness, which served them in good stead during the pandemic. “Your whole life is pivoting,” Vassallo says. “It’s just a series of pivots … So, four years in, Simone and I’d already done quite a bit of pivoting. We just kept it moving.” 

The flip to takeaway allowed the restaurant to stay afloat, but they say they still had to lay people off. For a while, there were many unknowns for Mappatura’s small team. 

For Phillips, whose husband works in the hospitality industry, too, things seemed dire.

“For months, we didn’t know if there would be an industry to come back to. And it was terrifying,” Phillips says. She soon returned a couple of mornings a week at the coffee window. “It was wonderful just to get out of the house and talk to people again … The coffee window became lunch on the patio, which became a few tables inside. And the next thing you know, we’re serving inside again.” 

Takeout was the key, Phillips adds: “(A) brilliant move done quickly by Terry and Simone.”

Back to the future 
These days, “normal” means getting back into the usual routine. 

Mombourquette and Vassallo begin each day at Mappatura a little after 9 a.m. For Mombourquette, that means checking messages, doing the cash from the night before, and cleaning the restaurant top to bottom. 

“It’s super unglamorous,” Mombourquette says. 

Next up: wine or liquor orders, either picking them up or putting them away. Then it’s time to go over reservations and takeout for the night and the week ahead. 

“Social media, it’s not great, but it’s me,” she says. “I do all of that stuff.” 

Vassallo, adds Mombourquette, comes in the morning and just starts cooking. And he’s usually at it until he walks out the door that night. 

One of his first tasks each day is making pasta. 

“It’s an opportunity to go through a little bit of muscle memory but still use the time for introspection, problem-solving,” he says. “And I start my day, every day, the same way.” 

Then come the small-batch sauces that need replenishing. Calling suppliers and sourcing ingredients follows. “I truly start my morning, every morning, talking to our fish supplier.” 

Getting by with a bit of help from your friends 
For any small business, the relationships built with suppliers can be critical. That became even more apparent as the pandemic upended the supply chain. 

“It was devastating,” Vassallo says. “But it was a correction that happened that allowed us to stand back and take an inventory of what’s important.” The pandemic clarified the importance of fostering and maintaining those relationships. And the last years only cemented those connections. 

One of those connections is Ted Hutten of Hutten Family Farms. 

Hutten has been farming for more than 30 years. These days 90 per cent of his business is direct-to-customer retail. The remaining 10 per cent is spots like Mappatura. And when it comes to wholesale, Hutten only works with a chosen few. 

“I’ve always liked Terry and Simone,” he says. 

Hutten says that throughout the pandemic, Mappatura and the other restaurants the farm supplies did their best to support those suppliers by ordering and keeping up on payments. He appreciates those efforts. 

For Vassallo, suppliers like Hutten, Espresso 46, and Roma Cheese made the difference. 

“It meant a lot to us because you felt that support,” he says. “We’re only a small restaurant, but we also felt maybe they were interpreting it the same way, that we were there to support them.” 

As a result, the relationships are much stronger now. 

“They always give me something good to eat when I go there, a treat,” says Ciro Comencini, the maker behind Roma Cheese. 

Wednesdays are long for Comencini. It’s the day he makes his deliveries in the city. Often his last stop before venturing back to Hants County is Mappatura. “He’s really got the Italian blood,” Comencini adds. “He’s always got a meatball for me, a cup of coffee.” 

“(The pandemic) was devastating,” recalls Chef Terry Vassallo, who worked with partner Simone Mombourquette to steer Mappatura through the pandemic. “But it … allowed us to stand back and take an inventory of what’s important.” Photo: Bruce Murray.

Silver linings
As tough as things have been, they could be worse, says Mombourquette.

“That’s one thing that we’ve certainly become very aware of with what’s going on in the world right now,” she says. “Now when I go to sleep at night, I lay there. And I’m like, I’ve got a roof over my head. I’m warm. I’m not hungry. And we’re safe.”

And Mombourquette reports a surprising realization.

“I like my business more than I did before the pandemic,” she says. “I love it. Because it became more like us.”

Anyone that owns a restaurant can tell you about the challenges. But those you know about in advance. 

“(COVID) was a big surprise,” she says. If they had known the pandemic was coming, would they have chosen to do something else? “For sure,” Mombourquette says. “Very few restaurants are actually making money right now. Everyone’s trying to survive.”

At this point, her biggest fear is a massive resurgence of the pandemic that triggers another lockdown. It “would be devastating,” she says.

Meanwhile, Mombourquette has several ideas brewing, but wants to see what happens to the local economy over the coming months.

“We’re cautious,” she says. “But we’re cautiously optimistic … People have to appreciate that and realize that this is nothing in the grand scheme of things. We’re lucky to still have the opportunity to try to keep going. Because a lot of people don’t.”

Phillips agrees. “People are definitely looking forward,” she says, adding that she thinks people will soon fall in love with their favourites all over again. And she can’t wait. “It’s just so lovely to see people come back and settle in their chair and be like, ‘Oh this feels familiar. This feels nice.’” 

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