Ontario’s minimum wage increase to $14 an hour was the final straw for Sherry Lee Stewart.
In response, the owner of Aamjiwnaang’s iconic Leaky Tank restaurant raised her prices 25%. Patrons drifted away.
Stewart had also been ill and some kitchen upgrades could no longer be prolonged. She’d had it.
So on Feb. 18 Stewart posted a poignant goodbye to customers and packed it in as a restaurateur.
But then a funny thing happened.
The Tank’s loyal fans weren’t having it, and they let her know. That farewell Facebook post was viewed 29,000 times and brought 300 comments, many from people pleading with her to stay open.
“It made me cry,” Stewart said. “I knew our customers cared about us … but this was so amazing.”
She has decided to give it another go, and the Degurse Drive truck stop is undergoing renovations.
Son Cole and his wife Miranda, as well as sister Juanita Williams have all agreed to pitch in and help run The Tank.
Stewart said she deeply appreciates the loyal fan base, including those who have been with her since the doors 19 years ago.
But she’s still upset with Ontario’s Liberal government. Recent labour law amendments have changed everything from sick days to vacation requirements that hurt mom and pop operations, she said.
“It’s like they don’t want small businesses to operate.”
The big winners, she said, are powerful corporations that control the political agenda at Queen’s Park, which has stacked the deck in favour of chain restaurants.
“They took all of our rights away to make the corporations happy,” she said, noting labour costs are higher when you make “real” food. “We still peel our own potatoes. Homemade food is a lot of work.”
Soaring electricity costs are another hurdle. The restaurant’s hydro bill hit $2,200 one month, despite the installation of power saving options and LED lighting.
In hindsight, Stewart said she wishes she had handled the minimum wage hike differently, by reducing staff and opening hours instead of raising menu prices.
“I’m a cook, not an economist,” she said, adding the Tank is the only job she’s ever known.
“I was just feeling too much pressure and I guess I overreacted.”
A new menu, wide-screen TV, fountain soda and new retro-dining chairs will greet customers when the doors reopen April 16.
“We love the working man and woman,” Stewart said. “And they love us.”
The Leaky Tank will be open 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday; Saturdays 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and closed Sunday.