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A Look Ahead for Foodservice: After a Year of “Unrelenting Bad News”, Hope for Better Days

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of its author and do not necessarily reflect those of MENU magazine, Restaurants Canada or its members. This article was written in March 2020, and therefore some of the content may not be up to date.

The all-you-can-eat buffet of pandemic-policy incompetence currently on offer from Canada’s three levels of government is so varied and overwhelming in its generosity that it’s hard to single out any particular item as the single worst offender.

For example, from where I’m standing the flashpoint of recent idiocy belongs to our PM, when on the last day of March, he publicly praised his procurement minister, Anita Anand, for doing “an incredible job” on her vaccine file. This, at a time when Canada had committed well over $1 billion to the purchase of COVID vaccines while our population enjoyed a vaccination rate stalled at under 2%, trailing not just every other
G7 country, but also Estonia, Azerbaijan, and the pariah state of Brazil.

My friends in the Ontario restaurant industry disagree. Their vitriol is instead almost unanimously focused on Premier Doug Ford, who ignoring all the convincing scientific modelling that showed a deadly third wave of COVID was fast overtaking us–announced in late March that restaurateurs in Toronto and other recent hotspots could open their patios for business. And then, less than two weeks later, as soon as those restaurants’ fridges and cold rooms were well-stocked with expensive perishables for doing business in the impending rush, changed his mind and ordered a return to takeout and delivery only.

This was daft–and unnecessarily costly for an industry that could ill-afford it. A considerable number of chefs and restaurateurs have been very vocal–okay, shrill–in their use of social media to point that out. It’s easy to understand their outrage. A year is a long time for unrelenting bad news.

All the same, despite some 10,000 pandemic-era Canadian restaurant bankruptcies, an enormous number of them remain in the game. There are all kinds of reasons for this. One is that however bad the odds might be for the contemporary restaurant, when that business is all you know it’s better to soldier on than try something completely new.

For another, government largesse and customer support have both been generous. While the times are irrefutably terrible for waiters and other front of house staff, it must be noted that some restaurants have found the pivot to takeout to be highly profitable (as long as rent is subsidized,
and staffing lean).

More typically, chef-proprietors tell me that they are only scraping by–just–but they can see a better day ahead. In the meantime, they just want to keep their heads down, work hard, and make sure they get to that better place at the end of this vaccination tunnel with their vision, professional desire, and business still intact.

A few others operating at half-steam have even told me they’re enjoying the unfamiliar new work-life balance of diminished hours on the job, which has allowed for more time with family, more time to reflect on and plan their next culinary move.

Whatever their particular situation, most chefs and restaurateurs I talk to know that this subsidized uncertainty cannot last too much longer. Few can handle another false start. They definitely need our continued fervent support for their takeout, grocery, and delivery programs–at which so many of our top restaurants have excelled.

As I write this, my editorial team at Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants is hard at work on our 2021 Spring issue and in the home stretch at last. We have been publishing this annual list edition of the magazine since 2015, each time causing something of a stir with our national ranking of the country’s best restaurants, which is based on votes from a national panel of experts.

But this issue is going to be a little different. There will be no ranking of the country’s best restaurants; instead, we will be publishing a list of 100 things (and people) to celebrate in our restaurant industry right now. There are good industry stories everywhere from sensational, category-defining takeout programs to meal kits that enable inadequate home cooks to feel like they’re poised and ready to join the line at Maison Boulud. There are chefs and restaurateurs turned campaigners for social justice in the industry, and others using their restaurants as grocery stores, just to keep their old suppliers in business for a happier future when business returns to something resembling normal. All these stories of industry resilience and resourcefulness are worth celebrating.

Whittling down the lists of such recommendations from our judges to a manageable catalogue for print has been pleasurable and inspiring challenge. But it’s not something we ever envisioned when we launched the magazine. Any more than recounting these stories of tectonic shift and industry resilience were what I anticipated sharing when I started writing this column a little over a year ago–at the dawn of this crisis.

Government mismanagement has helped ensure that we still have a good long way still to go. But I’m still hoping for a decent vaccine rollout. Next, for policymakers with the modicum of courage required to introduce vaccine passports to win the day. And for all that to happen in time to enable a decent patio season, and a return to indoor dining and something recognisably close to normalcy come summer. Too much to wish for, likely. But there is a great restaurant meal waiting for me at the end this, sometime.

MENU magazine would like to thank Jacob Richler for sharing his views and voice for the past year as our guest columnist. We look forward to future collaborations in support of the Canadian restaurant and foodservice sector.

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