From the Mouths of Chefs: How a Global Pandemic Changed Canada’s Restaurant Industry

It’s been said over and over again that the pandemic has had a massive effect on the world with many industry workers tired of terms like “unprecedented” and “pivot.’

The fact remains that very few businesses have been immune to this, and the hospitality space has seen some of the most monumental changes, both positive and negative.

Winston Churchill said it best with, “never let a good crisis go to waste” and so we spoke to operators from coast to coast to find out the changes they saw in their behind-the-line experiences. This is what we found.

COVID 19 Accelerated Innovation & Change

Almost immediately after restrictions on restaurants had begun, the industry reacted with new ideas to stay afloat, some of them existing plans that became fast-tracked. Both to stay essential and to keep core staff employed, many fine-dining restaurants offered grocery delivery and home meal replacement services, shifting menu offerings from foie gras to smash burgers and other simpler eats.

Community and care initiatives also took the forefront as hospitality members everywhere worked together to keep one another afloat, no matter their niche.

Deron Engbers of Garde de L’est partnered with Community Food Centres Canada to use their facility to prepare up to 1500 meals a week for his community’s low-income seniors. Keeping the bulk of his team intact and working, they deeply dissected all of their systems and processes to make sure they were running safely and efficiently. Engbers also noted their addition of virtual events in collaboration with a local theatre, wineries, and other organizations, a move they plan to keep going. Garde de L’est also plans to continue with the prepared foods marketplace they simultaneously launched.

Takeout Saved the Day

When dine-in was no longer an option, numerous restaurants that had never executed delivery or takeout made them their primary focus. For many, this meant augmenting menus, recipes, and individual offerings.

Nick Liu of DaiLo told Canada Takeout they had not used third-party delivery apps prior but soon refocused their business to begin using all the major players plus local upstarts. To expand their delivery radius beyond downtown, they even opened a midtown Toronto pop-up. This wasn’t easy for them and involved a lot of trial and error to make it work. Chef Lu noted the costing model for this was very different, and it was “like opening a brand new restaurant.”

During this time, nearby restaurants Marben and The Cloak Room set up a ghost kitchen, a bottle shop, a takeout food market, and also added a premixed cocktail service to their operations; all of which they are keeping open post-pandemic. These new streams were a success, not just to add additional revenue but to test ideas and brands to add to the portfolio.

“It allowed us to be present in the community as well as on social media. It ensured that people didn’t forget about us,” said Bar Leader Farzam Fallah.

Staffing was a Problem, Now it’s a Crisis

Before March 2020, staffing was already a major concern for operators. There weren’t always enough cooks to meet the demand and the return to business has seen those who were working not return to work for several reasons. The restriction waves, and their repeated open and closure cycles, have significantly lowered worker confidence in long-term employment, causing a large employee exodus to other industries and sectors with a consistent need for staff, like health and long-term care.

Liana Robbercht was the Executive Chef at Winsport when they first shut down, and the downturn led her to a new role in senior living, a field she might never have considered but a role in which she has found “renewed purpose and meaning.”

Despite businesses getting back to daily operations, many hospitality workers have been hesitant to go back to work not only over the inconsistency in work and income but the possibility of jeopardizing their CERB eligibility and benefits.

Many operators who spoke to Canada Takeout indicated that they were in desperate need of staff to meet the consumer demand, and would love to open to full capacity if they could get more employees on board.

The pandemic and its effects have also served as an industry wake-up call in its forced re-focus on working hours, mental health and proper compensation. Chef Engbers commented that “bad faith employers will be weeded out as people learn to seek out those who value them and what they bring to the table.”

The overall sentiment is the Industry has been forever changed by these past 18 months and what’s to come. With rent subsidies running out and easements on taxes coming due, it’s going to be rough sailing for many but there is also an opportunity to make hospitality one of Canada’s most thriving industries again.

Samantha Medeiros, sous chef from La Palma, believes “the restaurant industry can be so much more than people dining in a restaurant. It’s an outreach of how to connect everything we know about hospitality to our guests – no matter where they are”

Well said.