Five months in, restaurants are still in danger

OPINION: Yes, we all want our neighbourhood restaurants to survive. No, eating there likely won’t save them. We need long-term solutions from government
By Corey Mintz - Published on Aug 18, 2020
A customer waits to dine in at a Toronto restaurant on July 31. (Zou Zheng/Xinhua via ZUMA Press)

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Short some kind of time-travel deus ex machina, the school year will be starting soon. Rather than plan for it, Ontario wasted months pretending we were going to finish last year’s classes. Now talk of public education has eclipsed practical discussions of all other matters, such as the fact that restaurants are still screwed.

When the pandemic hit in mid-March, Andrea Nicholson had just bought a new fridge and uniforms for her Whitby restaurant, Butchie’s Damn Tasty Food. Soon she was closing down, cooking the pork shoulder in the fridge, and distributing the meals to local hospital workers. Based on the available information at the time, it didn’t feel safe to have customers come in for pickup or to have delivery people handle her food. Apart from the profit-ruining commissions of the delivery companies, Nicholson’s experience with couriers, including one who tried to shovel her food into a duffel bag, did not inspire faith in their commitment to hygiene.

Her landlord wouldn’t help. When she reached him by phone, he had just eaten in a North Carolina Cracker Barrel and said that the situation wasn’t that bad. (By August, there were 2,204 COVID-19 deaths in the state.)

In the spring, before our government rolled out any assistance programs or public-health guidelines, most restaurateurs had a choice: cobble together a new business plan based on take-out and delivery — possibly at a loss and possibly putting staff at risk — or close for good.

In the time since, Canada has rolled out a series of safety nets, such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance. They’re better than what’s been happening in the States. But not a long-term solution. And not one specifically aimed at the challenges of this $90 billion sector. So, in the restaurant space, we’ve seen a lot of innovation (meal kits, groceries, targeted delivery zones, a hand-crank-window burger-dispersal mechanism) and a lot of closures. One of the obstacles to the survival of our hospitality industry, and of the jobs of the 1.2 million Canadians it had previously employed, is the public desire to “return to normal.”

Burger hand-crank
A hand-cranked burger-delivery system.

In Ontario, restaurants have been allowed to reopen with limited capacity. And we are understandably trepidatious about returning to these spaces. But we’re excited for a night out and for the opportunity to help keep our local restaurants alive.

But there won’t be a return to normal. Not in a pre-vaccine world and probably not after. So this primal urge for the status quo of a previous era, and the avoidance of our contemporary reality, highlights the limits of consumer action versus the necessity for policy solutions.

Yes, we all want our neighbourhood restaurants to survive. But, no, eating there likely won’t save them.

Too many restaurants, particularly in urban centres, depend on working lunches, corporate accounts, and tourists. Some of those things are never coming back.

According to a study by Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhausie University, 24.8 per cent of Ontarians expect to work from home a year from now. Of that group, 59 per cent plan to spend less on restaurants. Whatever our plans or expectations are, the reality is that the cohort of Canadians who have shifted from working in the office to working in their homes are not picking up that bagel and coffee on the way to work, running out at noon for a salad, or heading for a drink with co-workers at five.

Charlebois estimates that Canadians staying home to “telecommute” could represent a loss of $20 billion this year for the hospitality industry. And that doesn’t even account for a loss of tourism revenue.

Vaughn Tan is the author of The Uncertainty Mindset, which explores a view of innovation formed through a series of deep observational ethnographies of high-end culinary R&D teams at world-celebrated kitchens, such as those at the Fat Duck, Modernist Cuisine, Jose Andres’s ThinkFoodLab, and an unnamed restaurant that is clearly Noma.

“I’m not sure if the world in this book is coming back,” he says of the sphere of restaurants fuelled by their celebrated chef’s ability to draw crowds from around the world. “How can you do it when you’ve got to have 50 per cent as many people in your dining room? How can you do that if you were sustained by tourist traffic? If there will not be tourists for eight months? A year? 18 months? 36?”

Quick-service restaurants with models based on keeping ingredient and labour costs as low as possible, Vaughn believes, are more likely to be able to adapt their menus to this situation. The restaurants we want to survive are the ones in the worst position. “It’s the independent restaurants that are trying to do the right thing, those that worked with small suppliers, paid their staff as well as they could (and most of the good restaurants don’t even do that), were trying to do something interesting with food. All of those restaurants are f***ed.”

We have no firm timeline for a vaccine. And if and when we get one, it’s looking more and more likely that many people will continue to work from home, cutting off a whole model of restaurant that depends on daytime traffic (and pays a premium in real estate for it).

As CERB ends and businesses reopen, more people will be at risk. We see this in the states with transmission linked to restaurants, employees pressured to return to work. In some states, employers are legally required to report anyone who declines to return to their job, enabling the government to cut them off from financial aid. Confirmed, active cases have been rising in British Columbia and Manitoba; Ontario residents are bracing for a spike when kids go back to school.

In the United States, reopened food service is being linked to clusters of infections: for example, 12 per cent of new cases in Maryland were traced to restaurants.

These are all symptoms of a lack of industry-specific understanding and response on the federal level.

To tell a huge segment of our population that they’re going to have to bleed money or live close to the poverty line in order to make it to the other side of this thing is not right. And for what — so they can serve us “elevated” comfort foods (truffle mac and cheese and lobster poutine) in a post-pandemic recession?

We can’t keep kicking this can down the road. A few months ago, the Save Hospitality coalition released a series of recommendations: it called for a suspension of fees and taxes, forgivable loans for those who rehire staff, and more. We’re not doing businesses or employees any favours by simply hoping things will return to normal: it’s time to talk about long-term solutions for this essential part of our economy.

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