Culinary in the age of COVID

There’s never been anything like it when it comes to Canadian restaurants

Closures, layoffs, worry over how to pay the bills, slow reopening with limited seating and a very wary clientele that’s slow to return.

That’s just some of the ‘new normal’ for Canadian restaurateurs, according to the University of Guelph’s sixth and final webinar in a series featuring agri-food experts about food and agriculture during the COVID-19 pandemic. This one focused on the future of the culinary industry.

Bruce McAdams, associate professor at the university’s School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management outlined the “huge impact” the pandemic has had on the industry.

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Restaurants Canada is reporting four out of five restaurants had to lay off people at the pandemic’s onset in March.

“Right away, you can see the impact on the workforce was huge,” he said, noting one in 10 restaurants closed their doors, likely forever.

Seven out of 10 operators are “seriously concerned with their ability to meet their cash flow requirements over the next three months.”

McAdams said that as more and more restaurants open up, the industry is still in a “weak position.”

While takeout restaurants – such as McDonald’s and Tim Hortons – faced a “minimal sales decline” because they were already built for takeout, other food establishments like dining restaurants and contract food services were significantly impacted.

James Eddington, chef and owner, Eddington’s of Exeter said his Exeter, Ont. restaurant has gone through a “huge shift.”

“We’re already pretty confident in our health and safety measures at the restaurant, but we try and double, triple that,” he said, adding his farm-to-table restaurant took five weeks off to rethink how it was going to transition to a take-away operation.

That effort included figuring out how to keep warm food warm, determining what foods travelled well, and finding ways to transport that food in an environmentally sustainable way.

“We’re going to relay that information into the future of our business,” he said.

But he said there will still be big challenges as businesses begin to reopen.

“We still have to realize we’re still in a state of emergency,” he said, noting people are starting to go out. “It’s not normal, it’s not going to be the same. We still have to ensure we have the health and safety protocols in place.”

He has noticed a challenge in navigating the different recommendations and guidelines provided by different levels of government and health authorities.

McAdams said there is data that shows six out of 10 Canadians will feel comfortable dining out at a restaurant within the next three months, “so that’s good news” but noted that means 40 per cent of people will opt to stay at home.

“We’re still in a state of emergency and there is some good news, but this is going to keep coming,” he said.

Some restaurant owners, he said, are having difficulty rehiring staff or are having to manage the stress of workers who do come back. He said that reopening after three months, with entirely new safety protocols, is akin to opening up a new restaurant due to the need to retrain staff. Many restaurant owners simply don’t have the cash flow to do that effectively.

He also said that a second lockdown will be “catastrophic for the industry” and opening at half capacity, as many restaurants currently are, is not in line with most business models.

“Coming back at half capacity is a big challenge for many, and probably not sustainable.”

Maria Corradini, Arrell Chair in Food Quality and associate professor in the department of food science, said restaurants will be further challenged in fall and winter when their operations move exclusively indoors.

About the author

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D.C. Fraser

D.C. Fraser is Glacier FarmMedia’s Ottawa-based reporter. Growing up mostly in Alberta, Fraser also lived in Saskatchewan for ten years where he covered politics, including a stint teaching at the University of Regina’s School of Journalism. He is an avid fan of the outdoors and a pretty good beer league hockey player. His passion for agriculture and agri-food policy comes naturally: Six consecutive generations of his family have worked in the industry.

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