COVID prompts Vancouver restaurant industry to tackle bigger problems

Source: vancouversun.com

“COVID sped up all the problems in the industry and fast-forwarded them 10 years,” says Brandon Grossutti, owner of PiDGin restaurant and founder of the FromTo delivery service.

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Last March 16, within hours of learning that a global pandemic would force them to close their doors, the team at Say Mercy had swung into action.

“By midday that day we were looking around the room knowing we would have to lay most of the staff off,” says Andrew Jameson, founder of the restaurant’s parent company, Collective Hospitality. “We thought it would be appropriate to offer them staff meals every day. And that maybe this is something we could do for the collective good of the industry.”

Every day for the next three months, his team prepared containers of nutritious food that people could buy or donate at a nominal cost. The Staff Meal program kept people employed and fed, and was just one of several initiatives launched at a time of desperate need.

Nearly a year later, that need isn’t quite as urgent. Now the industry is tackling its bigger, more challenging systemic problems.

“COVID sped up all the problems in the industry and fast-forwarded them 10 years,” says Brandon Grossutti, owner of PiDGin restaurant and founder of the FromTo delivery service. “Now we have to deal with them, and if we don’t deal with them, the only option is to give up and close.”

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Abdallah (Dallah) El Chami, co-owner of Superbaba and co-founder of the Vancouver Food and Beverage Community Relief Fund. He is a leader in building more equitable workplaces withing the restaurant community. CREDIT: Photo by Nadine Nevitt. (single use)
Abdallah (Dallah) El Chami, co-owner of Superbaba and co-founder of the Vancouver Food and Beverage Community Relief Fund. Nadine Nevitt

Cracks in the foundation

“There’s a huge problem in the foundation of our industry that we’ve just allowed to get worse,” says Abdallah (Dallah) El Chami, co-owner of Superbaba and co-founder of the Vancouver Food and Beverage Community Relief Fund.

The problems that face the industry include big ones, like its razor-thin margins and sweeping social issues of harassment, discrimination, and the inequality that sees more and more unhoused people camping in restaurant doorways.

But they also include seemingly small injustices, such as the boss who posts the work schedule just days before it begins, or treats tips as part of a server’s salary (they’re not), or pays a cook for eight hours, but expects them to work hours of unpaid overtime every day. These practices are not only unfair and sometimes illegal, they also prevent employees from having a life outside of work, which, over time, can lead to serious mental health issues.

“People don’t want to rock the boat because they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs,” says El Chami, who recently spoke about these issues as part of Tacofino’s Shift Change initiative. “COVID finally gave people a chance to stop and see both sides of the street. We need to open doors that allow people a path to better workplace culture.”

Shelley McArthur Everett, principal of SMC Communications and founder of Breaking Break Now. CREDIT: Photo by Chung Chow/Handout (single use)
Shelley McArthur Everett, principal of SMC Communications and founder of Breaking Break Now. Photo by Chung Chow

Building better workplace culture is also on Shelley McArthur Everett’s mind.

Last March, the principal of SMC Communications launched Breaking Bread, a central hub for restaurants that offer takeout, delivery, meal kits and the like.

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“For quite a while in the beginning, we were the only place you could find that information,” she says. “We just wanted to do what we could to help the restaurants when they needed the help the most.”

Now she is finding new ways to help the industry by amplifying its voices.

“In some ways, the pandemic has made a lot of people more comfortable in their vulnerability,” Everett says. “It’s been an incredibly difficult year, but there have been a lot of silver linings. It’s certainly exposed those problems at a much faster pace.”

Delivering fairness

One of the seemingly small but actually huge issues Everett sees is the unfair commissions charged by delivery apps “that make it an unsustainable model for restaurants.” Those commissions can be 30 per cent or higher — when the provincial government capped them at 15 per cent last December, Skip the Dishes quietly tacked a 99-cent “B.C. fee” onto its bills.

Grossutti knew that offering takeout was the only way restaurants would survive COVID-19, but didn’t want his money going to the corporations that own the apps.

“I don’t think big international companies need our money like our independent restaurants in Vancouver do,” he says. “I could sit and scream at the sky, or I could do something about it.”

So last April, he launched FromTo, which offers delivery at cost for restaurants and charges diners a flat $6.50 fee. Some 30 restaurants are already on board with another 95 in the works. And although the service is only available in Vancouver, it will eventually expand to the suburbs and beyond.

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“Montreal and Toronto are calling, and Calgary, but we only have so much we can handle,” he says. “We’re not making any money. But I’d rather lose money and make sure that everybody is okay.”

Members of Les Dames d'Escoffier B.C. Chapter prepare for a gala in the
Volunteers prepare for a Les Dames d’Escoffier B.C. Chapter gala in the “before times.” Women have been especially hard hit by the COVID-19, and the organization offers them help through scholarships and grants. Danielle Wong

Training for what’s next

A little surprisingly — and worryingly — one area that hasn’t seen a lot of demand is the kind of health-related financial assistance the B.C. Hospitality Foundation typically provides.

“In 2020, we had less requests, like, half the requests,” says executive director Dana Lee Harris. One of the reasons for that, she notes, is that the pandemic prevented so many people from seeking regular health care in 2020. Now experts are predicting a significant uptick in diagnoses of serious conditions that would otherwise have been preventable, and she is expecting many more requests for help this year and next.

Meanwhile, the hospitality foundation has been helping workers improve their skills by putting more money into scholarships (applications end March 31, bchospitalityfoundation.com), and leading physical fitness initiatives like #HospitalityHustle, which kicks off March 15 and finishes with a virtual dance party on May 30.

“It’s really to promote good health — mental health and physical health,” Harris says.

Similarly, Les Dames d’Escoffier British Columbia Chapter, a not-for-profit organization of women in hospitality, is offering nearly $40,000 in grants to women-led social enterprises, in addition to its annual scholarships. The grants range from $500 to $5,000, and applications close March 31 (lesdames.ca).

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“It won’t go to a person, it goes to a non-profit or charity,” says Cassandra Anderton, co-chair of the Dames’ B.C. Chapter. “So when the pandemic is over, we have a better community with stronger resources, human resources.”

There is a special need among women, who comprise some 59 per cent of B.C.’s hospitality industry, especially with the United Nations and others reporting that women are bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s economic and social fallout. As Anderton notes, “There are more women out of work because of COVID, and more women at home doing childcare.”

The team at Collective Hospitality launched the Staff Meal program to help hard-hit restaurant workers in the early days of COVID-19. From left, director of hospitality Andrew Jameson, executive chef Sean Reeve and director of operations Antonio Cayonne. CREDIT: Photo by Katie Cross (single use)
The team at Collective Hospitality launched the Staff Meal program to help hard-hit restaurant workers in the early days of COVID-19. From left, director of hospitality Andrew Jameson, executive chef Sean Reeve and director of operations Antonio Cayonne. Katie Cross

A community comes together

Those who work in restaurants live to help others. Now they are, finally, helping themselves.

“I think that the pandemic has changed us all in some ways,” Jameson says. “It was really nice, coming together to support our community.”

Although Staff Meal ended last June, Jameson wants to keep it going in some form or other. After all, he points out, “There’s a lot of need, and there always is a lot of need for food security around Vancouver and the world.”

Everett, too, is looking to take Breaking Bread in a new direction.

“In a lot of ways, Breaking Bread, especially in the early days, gave us a sense of purpose,” she says. “Moving forward, it’s been clear that restaurants need a voice and they need someone to stand up for them.”

Of course, nothing speaks louder than money, and how you choose to spend it. As Grossutti says, “If we don’t make smart decisions in our purchasing decisions, the places that we love just won’t exist anymore.”

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