By Steve Hubrecht
The local restaurant industry, like much of the Columbia Valley economy, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with many local eateries tightening their belts for lean times. That said, more than a few valley restaurants are pivoting to come up with new initiatives and products, some are holding their own during the pandemic, and many have jumped aboard the national Wednesday Takeout Day bandwagon.
The Canada Takeout Day kicked off across the country on Wednesday, April 15, backed by hundreds of chefs and restaurant owners, as well as Canadian celebrities. Indeed the first Takeout Day featured a virtual concert with Jim Cuddy (Blue Rodeo), Alan Doyle (Great Big Sea), Ed Robertson (Barenaked Ladies), Tom Cochrane and others.
How has the fanfare surrounding the Takeout Day translated here in the Columbia Valley?
Most local restaurant owners are giving it a whirl, but almost all point out that, in general, the culinary industry is in rough waters.
Helna’s Stube owners Helmut Kendler and Natascha Kendler-Tacha told the Pioneer last week that they had just done their third Wednesday Takeout night in an effort to increase sales, and they are additionally donating part of the proceeds from their Wednesday sales to the Columbia Valley Food Bank, but that nevertheless business has been quiet.
“We believe that we are facing tough times, especially here in Radium where we were already hit with an extremely slow fall and winter due to (the) hot springs closure and the slow economy in Alberta. Even if the government will re-open the economy by the summer, there will be restrictions attached to it. It will be a challenging summer for all of us in the hospitality industry. People will be cautious and disposable income will be tight,” the couple wrote in an email. “We will also miss out on the European tourists. And then with another usual slow winter adding to that, we are looking into spring/summer 2021 until life will hopefully be back to normal. We better keep our belts tight for the next while.”
Yet there is hope. At least local one restaurant is doing almost as well at this point as at the same point last year, and others have kept afloat by reducing hours and staff, and — especially — by focusing on aspects of their business beyond sit-down dining. Aside from takeout, these include wholesale products and take-home meal kits.
The take-home meal products are perhaps best exemplified by Edible Acres Cafe’s weekend chef boxes, which are a take-home combination of baked goods, dips, pre-cooked or ready-to-cook meals, soups and fresh veggies from the farm. Each week features a different menu of goodies.
“We were not sure if we could pull off being open for takeout full time in terms of having access to the quality ingredients we like to use in all our cooking, and our kitchen is very small so having staff in there able to social distance was not very possible or efficient. Hence the weekend chef box was created,” said Edible’s co-owner Anna Steedman.
The weekend chef boxes — which are now in their third week — are up for order each week at Edible Acres Cafe on Wednesdays (national Takeout Day), although Steedman said that’s mostly a coincidence owing to the time her partner Randy MacSteven needs to be able to put the boxes together for a Friday or Saturday pickup. So far the response has been overwhelmingly great. The first week, the weekend chef boxes sold out within hours of the posting. The next week, Edible Acres Cafe geared up with even more boxes, but once again sold out lightning fast.
“We have a kitchen, a chef, and a love for good food and sharing that food with others,” Steedman said. “I think it gives us a sense of normalcy to have smells coming from the kitchen again.”
While the boxes are doing very well, their catering business has come to a complete halt and Steedman indicated the Edibles/Winderberry team are quite grateful to have a many-pronged business model.
“We are extremely lucky to have the other facets of the business. If the cafe was the only source of income, I think we would be in a much different place. We went from having a wedding almost every weekend and a lot of other farm dinner events planned to just canceling it all. It sure is a crazy time we are in. My heart breaks for all the couples that were planning on tying the knot this summer and fall,” she said. “I think restaurants are doing a great job with all their takeout options. And the community is supporting them. We are making a point of ordering in at least once a week from a different place. I think it is an extremely scary time in an industry that already deals with lots of uncertainty. I fear for those that may not own their location and will not have the means to get back up and running again.”
MacSteven added that one potential silver lining that may come of the pandemic is that hopefully “a lot of places will implement plans for something like this coming along again. It has forced people to increase online presence and get online ordering going.”
From Scratch co-owner Lara McCormack told the Pioneer that From Scratch is not doing Takeout Wednesday and is instead currently open Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m..
“But as a family we have been supporting this initiative, picking up dinner every week from a different restaurant. We are also letting our customers know about Takeout Wednesday and encouraging them to support others in the valley,” said McCormack. “We are open during the weekend as it is when it works best for our family situation at the moment with three children at home with schooling. We are open during this time to connect with our From Scratch community. We are finding that most of our customers look forward to seeing us as much as we look forward to seeing them, plus they enjoy menu favourites (and) having a night off cooking. It also allows us to continue business with (our) suppliers, many of them being small, artisan businesses.”
McCormack added From Scratch’s sales are up and down week to week, and indicated that staying open at the moment is an effort at keeping the business alive in the long run, saying: “We are here to keep going.” On a bright note, From Scratch has been increasing its prepared meals and condiment offerings, something McCormack and partner Adrian McCormack have long wanted to focus on.
“We are holding on with the skin of our teeth when (the restaurant is) open but we are keeping up with wholesale accounts, gradually breaking more ground with our frozen, prepared meals and condiments. It has been our goal to focus on food production and now we have the opportunity upon us. We had to let our staff go, which was the hardest thing as a boss we have ever had to do, but we hope business ramps up to a point that we can bring them back,” she said. “It’s not looking good for the industry as a whole. We are tied in with a lot of other chefs across the nation and we all agree that this is the time to get creative, listen to what customers want, support the local growers and economy, (and) ensure nobody goes hungry in the community, all while working within new guidelines to ensure the safety of staff. I do not see sitting a full restaurant happening anytime soon but as long as takeout continues with some creative additions, we will see a new ‘restaurant landscape’ develop as the normal as we know it is gone.”
Local restaurant Fuze has managed to hold its own during the pandemic, which owner Sarah Adamson chalks up to the fact that Fuze was a takeout-only restaurant for years, up until just a few months ago. Adamson added that Takeout Wednesday has definitely had a positive impact on Fuze.
“We didn’t know about it until the first Wednesday that it started and we were extremely busy and not really ready for it. We had been so short staffed and working so many hours, none of us had read the news,” said Adamson. “When COVID started and everybody shut down, I was unsure what the right thing to do was. I laid off all my staff except for two so that we could ensure safety and social distancing protocol and we did all the hours and work ourselves. Because of this we kept busy with work. I’d say the first two weeks were slow but then they started to pick up again, and for a couple of weeks now we have been so busy, I had to call my staff back to work and help. Our sales numbers this April are similar to last year. This is working for us, because as you know we were takeout only for the past five years.”
She added the timing of the pandemic (and the call for restaurants to offer takeout only) is almost ironic, given that Fuze had been closed all January in order to extend its front area and put in washrooms in order to finally offer a dine-in experience for customers.
“I have been saving money for the past five years to do this project, and it was kind of disappointing how anticlimactic the whole thing was because as soon as we reopened, we had to take away all the new seating and tell customers we were only takeout again. I am grateful that we are still busy, and we are hoping that we can continue to have a good summer, in whatever form we are required to serve our food. We will be ready for it.”
Fuze will be scaling back its opening hours a bit, Adamson said, and won’t be open seven days a week this summer as it was last year, as COVID-19 has thrown her normal hiring and training schedule (which often happens in March) to the wind.
Photo submitted by Ryan Watmough