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Local restaurant weathers an inhospitable storm

Josh Perovic operates the Hemlock Barn on Lobsinger Line, making the move to larger digs during the pandemic. [Justine Fraser]

The hospitality industry was hit hard from consistent lockdowns and restrictions over the last two years. One local burger joint decided to fight the odds and open up a larger location on Lobsinger Line near St. Jacobs.

Josh Perovic, owner of the Hemlock Barn, says he was happy to make the move from Waterloo to Woolwich as he rebranded his restaurant from its original name Hemlock Street Burger Bar. Looking for a bigger space, he saw the near-century-old building previously operating as Kara’s Market as an opportunity.

“There’s so much history in this building. It’s been a restaurant for about 70 years; it’s always been a family-owned restaurant. There has been a lot of people that put their heart into this building and there is a lot of potential,” noted Perovic. “I’m close to my potato farmer, I’m close to the people who are raising my cattle, I’m close to the people who are growing my produce, making my maple syrup – wouldn’t really have it any other way.”

The remodelled 6,600-square-foot barn opened last summer after indoor dining was resumed at lower capacities due to pandemic restrictions. To help with launch of the new restaurant, Perovic hosted a Canada Day celebration that had over 600 people show up, something he wasn’t able to do in his previous, smaller location.

Perovic was happy to see the restrictions lift for indoor public settings, mentioning the issues they have caused for restaurant owners and operators, seeing not just smaller profits but a decrease in staff as well as many had to isolate.

“I think that the mandates have been very damaging on the hospitality industry, and COVID has been damaging on the hospitality industry. It’s affected us with staffing, it’s affected us with supply chain issues, it’s affected us with price increases of our products, our gas,” said Perovic.

With most pandemic restrictions now lifted, the Hemlock Barn will be reflecting that in their operations.

“I don’t think it’s up to me to tell them where they can eat, especially if I’m comfortable serving them. I’m not worried about it. I think that COVID’s terrible, but shutting down restaurants isn’t the answer. I’m happy that it stopped. We actually got rapid tests from the Chamber of Commerce for free, so we have been testing everybody weekly and nobody has been sick.”

The Hemlock Barn has also had to let some staff go due to lockdowns, going from 27 staff in the summer to seven currently. Perovic noted he was in the process of hiring.

“We had some people who did feel uncomfortable working in this environment, so they took a layoff. We had some people we just couldn’t afford to keep on; I had to make sure that my guys that had mortgages and families were well taken care of, and we had to let go of a lot of students.”

With the basement undergoing a renovation, the Hemlock Barn will soon be home to a bar and event space. Perovic carried out the work despite the hit from rising supply prices.

“There were good bones for a bar in the basement when we bought the building, but there’s a lot of plumbing and electrical and stuff that had to be tidied up. We started the day we moved in now we’re at a point where the build will be complete in the next week and a half,” said Perovic, excited to open the new bar despite difficulties the pandemic created.  “Some of the supplies were difficult to get, some things we had to get creative with and modify but everything was expensive, nothing was cheap. Wood was up like crazy, drywall was up, everything was up.”

The Hemlock Barn has seen a string of steady customers as restrictions eased, inviting in any customer that wants a smash burger and milkshake. Perovic has seen a more relaxed customer base with the lifting of indoor public restrictions as well.

“Nobody is as scared as they once were, everything is opening up. But even the people that are concerned seem considerably less concerned than they seemed two months ago. Everything’s kind of relaxed.”

“From a business perspective – they just want to be open and do what they do,” said Tracy Van Kalsbeek executive director for City of Waterloo BIA , at recent regional community update. “The last few years have been extremely difficult for small businesses and painful for all of us across the region. We’ve been hearing from businesses just around impact that their fatigued – now their feeling a bit of relief. I think that restaurant industry folks have been really understanding of public health restrictions and doing their best to follow them as things open and close. They did that for the prime reason they want to be open for their customers.”

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