From Tweezers to Takeout: An Interview with Chef Jason Harper

Written by Eric Wood

Jason Harper is the Director of Culinary and Operations at Cocktails and Canapes – one of Vancouver’s premium event and catering companies. He spoke to us about their pandemic journey, and how innovation and quick thinking kept them going, and growing, during a tough time.

Prior to COVID, was takeout and meal replacement a major part of your business?

We did a very small amount of takeout. We would get the occasional charcuterie box delivery, but not much past that. It was during covid that we started creating 4-6 course dinner boxes with intricate components and have them artfully plated. We would pair these boxes with wine and sometimes craft cocktails. We also included ways for people to smoke their own negronis, for example.

How much of your business shifted during the pandemic? What percentage shrunk? What was the ratio of takeout to dine in?

Events shrunk by 99.9% as we were only able to cook for a family of 6 in someone’s home. Most of our events had previously been 300-500 person corporate events. With a staff roster of just over 100, we went down to a team of 3.

I would shop at Granville or the market in Kits for ingredients for my small in-home dinners, prep everything and go with my only event coordinator as the server. There were a number of events that I would just go to by myself, prep, cook, serve, clear, clean up. We had to adapt drastically.

I had an opportunity to start proposing food programs to local coffee shops. That was where we signed on with a local chain that is growing rapidly and wanted to improve its food program. We now make fresh croissants, muffins, scones, cookies, sandwiches, wraps, salads, soups, and even some craft syrups for their coffees. This allowed me to hire a full team during the pandemic while most cooks were laid off and living off CERB.

What did you do internally to accommodate takeout demands? Did you need to change anything?

We created a variety of custom menus for our corporate clients to buy for their staff. With so many companies having their staff work from home, we offered custom gift boxes that we would deliver to their homes. We also hopped on every possible special day and created a custom box to celebrate.

Mothers Day, we did a brunch box and had to hire 10 drivers to be able to deliver them all over the valley. Father’s Day was a Sous Vide Tomahawk from Two Rivers. We made a bunch of fun sides and also offered a whiskey tasting flight with a Glencairn glass. Valentine’s was a cute date night box where they would cook together and enjoy a nice can of whipped cream afterwards.

What delivery services/apps did you utilize? Were these new to your business?

We used Routific to plan all of our routes the most efficiently. I thought about doing a ghost kitchen and selling on DoorDash, but the margins are just too tight with them taking such a large percentage. Routific was a lifesaver, we used it many times for all our delivery events..

Did you need to adapt your menu, or change what you offered to accommodate takeout? What was the biggest challenge?

Yes, we created 3 different charcuterie options, as well as picnic box menus and “build your own” boxes as well. Then, the 5-course dinner boxes were the most popular.

The biggest challenge was storage. We would build 300 boxes that are holding 5-course meals for 2 people with a bottle of wine then need to find space in our walk-in cooler while keeping it organized and every box having a different name on it and allergies, that are all going to different locations. This lead to many 2AM start times to make sure the food was as fresh as possible and still beautifully packaged.