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Everything is changing and nothing is the same. Restaurant culture might never be what it once was, but that might be for the better. 

In BC, we’ve had it good through this whole pandemic, and I can only hope that we’ve begun to realize what a luxury being able to eat out was and still is. Some restaurants quickly closed and others scrambled to make ends meet in March and April. As the months wore on, the food and beverage industry was seriously put to the test, and will be recovering for months and years to come. I had the privilege of speaking with the owner of Gina’s Mexican Cafe and the owner and head chef at La Stella Trattoria about their experiences thus far. 

Restaurants had to halt dine-in services for over eight weeks and then reopen, if they dared, with limited capacity; it’s nothing short of a miracle that so many Nanaimo restaurants are still making it work. 

Sharon Stares is the owner of Gina’s Mexican Cafe. She told me the first line of business back in March was to set up an independent online ordering system and have staff do the deliveries. This allowed their team to stay employed rather than outsource to Skip the Dishes. As the restaurant adapted to meet restrictions and operate safely in unprecedented times, the menu also had to shift towards meals that better suited travel. 

“I eat at home less and just eat at the restaurant more since I’m working more than ever!” Stares said. She recommended their chipotle dinners, enchiladas, and burritos for takeout meals.

She added, “I’ve been very fortunate so far. Our crew was ready and willing to come back to work, and the community has been so supportive. It makes me sad to see the closed doors of some of our businesses—it’s certainly a tough time for our industry.”

In reminiscing about eating out with her friends, she said, “A lot of us keep our bubble small, so we can’t go out with all of our friends. It’s not too bad for me because I can see people at the restaurant, but I feel for those stuck at home with very little contact.”  

Stares’ spirits have lifted since reopening for dine-in with spaced-out tables and masked servers. She can not sing enough praises to the community that continues to support them in uncertain times. 

“[F]olks are so excited to be out and seeing people, [although] I think people are eating out less and ordering in more. In general there is a lot less socializing. It’s sad to see, I just hope it doesn’t last too long. Many people make very conscious decisions now about spending their money locally. It has definitely made a difference and will continue to be important for the foreseeable future. The struggle isn’t over for the smaller local businesses.” 

Gina’s Mexican Cafe also started up a grocery service when they reopened, offering much of their wholesale restaurant orders as a list for customers to choose from and get delivered. The service has since slowed down, but was especially busy in April and May.

“We’re not out of the weeds yet,” Stares continued. “There are many things that can be done still to make these restrictions sustainable for restaurants. Restaurants running at half capacity is not ideal, but as they ramp up delivery systems and takeout menus, it could begin to make up for the table deficit. Not having as many seats [makes it difficult to] deal with reservations. Having to distance the tables is reasonable and I agree with it, it’s just awkward.”

Gina’s Mexican Cafe, along with other Nanaimo restaurants, will survive as long as the community continues to support them. These restaurants have never been more grateful for their regulars.

The historically low wages of kitchen and serving staff raises questions about how much tipping actually offsets that pay gap. I remember working at Panago in high school when minimum wage went up to $10.05 per hour, and I was overjoyed. When I was serving at a hotel restaurant in 2016, my pay was $9.00 per hour (minimum wage was $10.85 per hour) in addition to completely unreliable tips. They were so unreliable that I vowed one Friday evening shift that if I didn’t reach a target amount, I would quit. I gave my two weeks notice the next morning. 

The customer is always right, especially in restaurants, because restaurants completely rely on their customers for survival. In Canada, we have no problem sending food back because it’s not what we expected, or if something is actually wrong with it. If you’re polite about it, you’ll probably get something else off the menu free of charge. However, the restaurant has just given away two plates of food for free and the server is worried you won’t tip. 

Minimum wage in BC has not quite doubled since 2000, now at $14.60 per hour, and many servers still don’t quite make the cut at only $13.95 per hour as of June 1, 2020—even though tips have basically been slashed with the limited seating and takeout. 

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, every restaurant owner had to make hard decisions about what to do with their perishable food as they shut their doors. Then, when they were able to reopen in June, and probably running out of a deficit, they hired staff back at higher wages and restocked their kitchens with no clue as to whether they’d be able to get themselves out of a financial sinkhole. 

I waited in line outside Big Wheel Burger—one of the few restaurants that have opened during COVID-19—and witnessed someone order at the door, realize there was a mandatory 15 percent added gratuity to their bill, and cancel their order. Whether it was because they didn’t deem the server worthy of a tip or they couldn’t afford it was unclear, but either way Big Wheel lost an order that day. 

Corey Mintz wrote in the September/October issue of The Walrus that “if business schools produce economists who don’t value or understand the hospitality industry, and the government hires graduates from those schools to advise it, it’s no wonder that a restaurant-specific support strategy eludes us.”

He explained that in order to keep afloat, some restaurants will charge more on the weekends than during the weekdays for the same dish because they know that weekends are always busy and they need to balance out the Monday through Thursday revenue. We may gawk at this, but we don’t blink twice when airlines charge more for weekend flights.

Ryan Zuvich is the owner and head chef at La Stella Trattoria—pasta and wood-fired pizza made on Wesley Street—he spoke to the difficult decisions he had to make surrounding the initial restaurant restrictions.

“Weighing the cost versus worth [was not easy]. As soon as it was possible to reopen, many restaurants did. We waited partly because the rules were vague and the risk hadn’t changed, partly because we hoped our takeout options would carry us through, and partly because we wanted to make sure our space and protocols were as safe as possible for our staff and clientele.”

Early in the pandemic, La Stella Trattoria created frozen meal options they call “Provisions” to make the fresh and delicious Italian food prepared in their restaurant available to a home kitchen.

“We looked at our takeout volumes and it didn’t seem like we could hit the volumes needed to sustain the restaurant, and I wasn’t able to run it alone. So, we decided Provisions was the right choice as I could do it alone and grow and re-hire our staff if volumes were there. The funny thing is that our first business in Nanaimo was a deli that produced many of the same things, so it was sort of a full circle for us. … As soon as restaurants reopened [in June], the customer base was ready to go out. Provisions all but stopped, takeaway didn’t work, so we had no choice but to open for dine-in.”

Zuvich spoke to the current climate, “Everything has different steps now; every decision has weight—not being able to simply go and do something with friends, a pint out, coffee, taking my son to the playground.”

It hasn’t been easy to cut capacities or to expect that everyone is on the same page and will be compliant with reservations and spacing accordingly in public areas. 

“One of the biggest shifts is the decision making process of the individual. Some people come out regularly as though not much has changed. Some people haven’t come back to dine-in at all. Limiting table size to six people and not permitting singing [for live performances] has obviously put a damper on group celebrations. … Happily, takeout has grown exponentially since we re-opened the restaurant which has, for the most part, offset our loss of seating.”

Zuvich is highly involved in the restaurant industry and spoke to the future of small businesses in that arena. 

 “Independent restaurants are in a tough spot, but that was true pre-COVID. Continually more expensive lease rates, food costs that go up weekly, a skilled labour force that deserves equitable pay for a world made more expensive, and chain restaurants marketing themselves as making handmade quality food while the kitchen uses scissors to open bags of purchased premade [food]. All of which has been compounded by menu prices that haven’t really changed in 20 years.” 

Zuvich explained how COVID-19 has hit the fast-forward button on this industry, as they’ve been forced to adapt swiftly to survive and these conversations “really only scratch the surface of a very complex socio-economic question.”  

“Many restaurants have raised their prices to survive. Things like wholesale pricing on liquor, something BC was virtually alone in not having, helps but is really just a band-aid—one that is scheduled to be removed in March of 2021. If these emergency measures are taken away, prices will have to go up until they sustain a business and its people. That, however, opens a new list of problems.”

Beyond the amazing patronage that La Stella Trattoria has felt from the community, Zuvich mentioned another layer of support. “We’ve noticed much more comradery within the business community. Lots of shops are collaborating and working together to spread out the wealth and make sure the good places keep on going. Listening to our supportive community and talking and working together as an industry is how we all move forward.”

To name just a few ways shops are collaborating, La Stella Trattoria includes cookies made at White Rabbit Coffee with their takeout orders, White Rabbit collaborated with Burnt Honey to make a vegan ice cream this summer, Cold Front Gelato used White Sails’ Gallows Point Chocolate Porter for a decadent gelato, and White Sails Brewing uses coffee from Regard to make their Regardian Coffee Ale.

“On the other side, the pandemic brought out the community support for the places they want to stick around, and I think a good number of independents are as humbled and thankful for the outpouring of support as we are. My hope moving forward is that the places doing good work will continue to be supported, leading to a better overall quality in the marketplace with a focus on independent and community-based businesses,” Zuvich said. 

This is a massive shift in restaurant culture. We can hold on to what we once knew as eating out and look longingly at the past, or we can see that change needs to happen and we can be a part of it. Whether we’re calling it a “restart” or that restaurants are in “recovery,” the point is that this has been a year of reevaluating what we consider to be essential in life and we inevitably pour into those things that are important to us. So, let’s keep investing in what we value. 

 

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