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  • Jody Franklin

Surviving & Thriving During The Pandemic

Sunshine Coast restaurants change and adapt under the spectre of COVID-19

Interviews by Andrea Coates, Introduction by Jody Franklin

article appears in Sunshine Coast Palate #1 Spring/Summer 2021

One year ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, it was accompanied by a shockwave of fear throughout our culture, fuelled by the fact we knew so little about how to deal with the imminent threat. Food security was one of the first issues that shook people to the core, as our regular supply chain was disrupted, and folks panicked, flooding the supermarkets to stock up on items in anticipation of being in lockdown for months without access to a regular supply of easily available food. It was disconcerting to see shelves emptied of staple food items. Dr. Bonnie Henry told us to stay at home, businesses shuttered, people lost their jobs, and we were living under a cloud of uncertainty. We are fortunate on the Sunshine Coast that we have been weathering the COVID storm better than most of the rest of the province: a combination of relative isolation plus a tight-knit community that has been outstanding at heeding public health guidelines, presciently aware of the potential negative health impacts, has kept the Coast a safe haven from the surging waves of illness flowing through many other locations in BC. Amidst the chaos and confusion, local food providers and producers rose to the challenge of our times, and found novel ways to break through the miasma and deliver food under a rapidly-changing set of conditions. After the initial panic subsided and restrictions were relaxed, it became apparent the local food scene was not just surviving, but thriving. In general, the restaurant industry has been hit really hard, but you wouldn't necessarily know it here on the Coast.

The community responded to the innovation, hard work, community-minded spirit and respectful approach to their customers that local restaurants, food trucks, breweries, farmers and craft producers showed by rallying around these small businesses, and coming out and buying their food and beverages as much as possible. While some food vendors have struggled this past year, we have seen many more expand, and new food businesses open. Part of this was folks craving any morsel of social interaction they could fit in by dining out more often, others became more tuned in to food security issues and started buying locally grown and foraged foods. Some opted for the convenience of having food prepared for them more often while having to navigate caring for children or elderly family at home. Somehow, through this all, our local food scene was injected with a renewed vibrancy, and became a focal attractor to Coast residents and visitors, proving that food is the central social force of our lives, the thing that brings us together even during the darkest of times.

Newcomers to the food scene in Gibsons during the pandemic include The Shortcut, Bruno's Burgers, Oh Miso! and Smash Coast Burger Company. El Segundo, Batch44 Brewery & Kitchen, Sechelt Pizza Co., The Porch and Nourish Eatery + Juice Bar opened locations in Sechelt in the past year. Popular Gibsons food truck and pop-up Salt & Swine expanded their operations and opened a restaurant. Iconic Gibsons landmark Molly's Reach was purchased by the owners of Drift Cafe & Bistro and reopened with a refurbished interior and an updated menu. The Gibsons Landing Trading Post building was recently taken over by the Coho Collective out of Vancouver, who plan to turn the 8400 square foot space into a commissary featuring up to 16 food vendors later this year. As we optimistically anticipate emerging from this pandemic someday soon, we look forward to the continued emergence of a vital and dynamic local food scene on the Sunshine Coast.

Palate publisher Andrea Coates chatted with some local restaurateurs about the challenges they've faced during the pandemic, and how they've dealt with rapidly-changing rules in their industry. I've edited the interviews for length and clarity.

Scarlet Osborne and Heidi Murphy, El Segundo, Sechelt, March 24th 2021

How has the business model you envisioned changed since the pandemic?

Heidi: Obviously when you open a restaurant with an allocated amount of seats you plan everything around the amount of revenue based on that. Right in the midst of it, before we even had a chance to set up our seating plans, they were cut back with the restrictions, and that really challenged our revenue stream from the very beginning. And then we had so many challenges during our construction process as well. Everything all of sudden was delayed. Getting steel across the border was a huge hurdle and cost us about three months. Working with skeleton crews and doing shift work, coming in late at night instead of all day and having high anxiety made the whole environment different than opening in a pandemic-free world. It definitely made an impact on the guest lineup on our first night, everyone spaced out from each other and not too sure of the environment that we were opening, a space in which they would have been so welcomed if we’d had a proper chance for a pandemic-free opening.

Scarlet: I think something that we really missed out on was the opportunity to really celebrate. Normally you open a restaurant, you cross all these hurdles and you do it, and then you get this moment to be like ‘we did it!’ and you have a party and you have all these events - we missed all that. We opened and it was just work work work work, because we couldn’t do anything. Also, at the end of the summer, we couldn’t thank our staff in the traditional hospitality ways. We didn’t want to take the risk of putting everybody in a room together, so we really missed out on those bonding experiences that you get with your staff. We’re looking forward to at some point having a grand opening and it might not even be this year, but we’ll have one.

What would you say is the biggest challenge you’ve faced since the pandemic?

Scarlet: I would say the single biggest challenge that we’ve faced was the lack of access to the major federal supports that were put in place to save small business. Especially for hospitality, which was really hard hit, but also hospitality has such a high percent of its own revenue spent on labour, it’s one of the highest labour margin industries, and so the wage subsidy in particular absolutely saved our industry. If it hadn’t been for the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy, I would say that 90% of restaurants would be gone right now. It single-handedly saved the industry. Unfortunately, we haven’t had access to that at all. Brand new restaurants or any brand new business that didn’t have any comparable revenue in 2019 have no access to the same support. And that’s even though we were completely legally and financially committed to the project before the pandemic. Unfortunately, there’s a very small window and it's just a small subset of businesses that got missed. It’s been a tough winter but now that the birds are chirping and the flowers are out, its really easy to be optimistic.

Has the pandemic presented any opportunities for you in terms of how you’ve operated your business?

Heidi: Opening during the pandemic we had this great opportunity for staffing. We wouldn’t have had such a high calibre of front of house staff without the pandemic being in place. What happened is so many people had lost their positions in the city and decided to move back home, closer to their families and their parents, and started looking around the Coast to see what was there. Because of that we now have some team members that are truly amazing and totally what we would have suspected to be out of our reach opening on the Coast without the pandemic. So that was a blessing in disguise.

Anything to add?

Scarlet: We’re looking forward to seeing a continuance of the tendency to shop local, which personally has been one my favourite things to come out of the pandemic. Everybody’s brought their eyes back down into what is really important and I think witnessing everybody making such a focus on shopping local and supporting small business has been amazing and I’m really hoping that’s going to keep going for all the amazing small businesses we have on the Coast.

Emmanuel Kobas, Batch44 Brewery & Kitchen, Sechelt, April 22nd, 2021

How has your business model adapted to the pandemic?

We obviously had to follow the health guidelines, to make sure that everybody distanced and have all our staff ready in case we ever got a case, to protect ourselves and our patrons so that we don’t have an outbreak at our place. We have sanitizing stations, we take the temperatures of the staff before work, we clean with the health board’s advice on sanitizing spray. Our business is a brewery, so we built the business as an indoor experience, but we have expanded our patio as of now because we are closed. We’re promoting takeout and we’re going to be promoting our beer for takeout very shortly. We’ve adapted, but it has been difficult because we built up the place for people to come in.

What would you say has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

The biggest challenge we’ve faced is we want to try and retain all our staff. And we’ve tried very hard to do that. That’s what it is: a staffing issue. For the most part all our staff has stuck with us through this whole year. Even the two months that we closed, they came back. Even now with just being a patio. It’s hit us hard obviously, business isn’t as good as it was at the beginning, so it has an economic impact on our business, the revenue is really, really down. And we just try to make what we can and keep going.

Have there been any opportunities that you’ve experienced?

When we first started we had a plan. We wanted to can our beers and have them in liquor stores and at the beer and wine stores, everywhere. And we never had that opportunity. But when we had that first closure, it propelled us to get a canning machine. Now with this closure we’ve taken it a step further - we’ve brewed enough beer that we’re going to have a lot of pallets of beer we’re going to start distributing.

Anything you’d like to add?

I think it’s been a tough road. We’ve had some ups and down and sometimes we see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel and then it gets pushed back. We need to make sure that we can survive this pandemic, make sure that everyone is safe. There’s a lot of lives lost and it's obviously heartbreaking, it’s really a bad time. But we've got to do it smartly and effectively so we’re not destroying everybody. But I see that we might get to the end of the tunnel soon. I think that with everybody vaccinated they’ll be okay.

Cheryl Chang, Nourish Eatery + Juice Bar, Sechelt, April 7th, 2021

How has your business model adapted to the pandemic?

We had to pivot with our customers’ needs, which is ever-changing with COVID and the restrictions that come with it. And also the mental health of people. The capacity of being home is greater than normal because we have less activities and we have less places to go, kids need to stay home, so the time has also gone down to do other chores like cooking. And they haven’t had the relief of enjoying dining out in certain times of the year and we’ve just had to work with the ever-changing dynamics of everyone’s home life to help support our customers.

Did you always conceive of Nourish as primarily take-away?

We were always going to have some sort of sit down, but as COVID hit our opening was delayed, we had to open just for curbside, and then as the pandemic went on, we got the sense that the dine-in was probably not possible for another year or two, because we didn’t want to take away the reliability of what we offer away from our customers by changing all the time with the restrictions.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced over the past year?

Being a new business I don’t qualify for any benefits. This operation is not a pop-up operation. It requires a lot of my investment, my time, my efforts. And I have received no relief from the government to run this business and it was too far in to call it quits when the pandemic hit. I’ve had no choice but to make a go of it. It was also hard because we couldn’t hire as much as we needed to. And it was hard for people to find work that could supplement the government benefits when COVID was really bad. So we kind of just had to adapt with COVID and our restricted capacity as a small business opening during COVID, and not rely on the fact that I would qualify for any benefits.

Has the pandemic presented any opportunities for your business?

Yes and no. Not for profit opportunities, but I’ve had the privilege of working with the school community and kids, which we always wanted to do. Because of COVID, some funds through the school board had to be used up and moved to other activities, which allowed for a nutrition program to open up, which helped feeding some kids who were part of vulnerable families. And we came up with creative ways to supplement that program, other than directly feeding them. We are going to test a program for kids at the youth centre, where I’m going to teach a workshop with kids about grade six and seven, they’re going to learn about how to make food using affordable or simple ingredients that they can find in their pantry at home. They will be able to take this as a life skill and make it go a long way.

Anything to add?

The community has been supportive and local businesses have been supportive of each other. I think that residents of the Coast just need to remember that there a lot of things that can be purchased locally and if they can help local business as much as they can it comes back to the community, to people they know, people in their family. It helps people keep their jobs, too. We’re looking forward to launching the first local major meal service program here with the support of the community. And all without the help of the government! Not only did we not qualify for any benefits, we also haven’t received any grants. We’ve survived purely on our own and purely on the support of the community.

Shawn Lee, Sechelt Pizza Co., Sechelt, March 30th, 2021

How has your business model adapted to the pandemic? We knew that there was an opportunity to open up some sort of restaurant in the space and we wanted to do something that would be pandemic-proof. So it actually factored pretty heavily into the strategy for opening, for choosing that sort of business.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in setting up your business?

Everything was brand new to us. We had worked in the restaurant industry, all the partners. We have about 30 years combined experience. But from the ground up, opening? We had always worked for other people. So one of the biggest challenges was the unknown. There’s so much around learning about all of the different regulations and permits and all of the rules and guidelines in terms of what you have to put in place to be legally able to operate. There’s no real guide book. So it's kind of casting out a wide net and asking for lots of help and support and fortunately in Sechelt we have the Sechelt Downtown Business Association and Theressa Logan there and she was a great support, as well as a couple other business owners, like Scarlet Osborne from El Segundo and James from Plethora. We were really fortunate to have great support, people giving us lots of ideas.

Has the pandemic presented any opportunities for your business?

I think a big thing that we’ve just started implementing is QR codes. QR codes were something I was aware of for a decade when they came out and there’s so much potential with being able to have a dynamic menu that you can just scan with a QR code so you can always keep it updatable. Or you can have QR codes for driving people to your business, whether it's on a pamphlet or on a sticker or whatever. And the pandemic has educated the public at large on how to use QR, and also they’ve just become easier to use over the last few years. That’s been really awesome. Everybody’s on board with QR codes now.

Anything to add?

It’s the community support we’ve gotten from people that has been wonderful and we feel so grateful for it. The customers we’ve had are really keen on helping out restaurants and it's wonderful for us because we’ve just opened. The way that people are excited about coming out and trying something new, and maybe being more forgiving right now than they would have been about processes as we’re all trying to figure out how to do it.

Katrina Haerthe and Karla Donovan, Salt & Swine, Gibsons, April 1st, 2021

How has your business model adapted to Covid?

Katrina: We changed a lot. We pivoted 180 degrees when the pandemic hit. At that time we had partnered with the local breweries and were running our food tent, and when the breweries shut down in March it immediately put a stop to what we were doing and all of a sudden we didn’t have anywhere to go. At the time we were prepping all of our food at the Gibsons Seniors Scoiety at Harmony Hall. That was our commissary space. It took us a couple of weeks to regroup but then we spoke with the organizers there and we ended up making an agreement that we were going to use the kitchen and actually sell right out of the kitchen in exchange for providing meals for seniors that were going to be directly affected by the pandemic. We immediately pivoted and we did two days a week providing meals to the seniors and then two days a week we did Salt & Swine out the back door. We did call ahead orders, people had a pick-up time. So our complete model from what we had done just changed on a dime. But it never slowed down. It picked up from there.

Karla: All of the bookings we had before COVID hit were cancelled because for the most part we were doing events in our tent. People still wanted takeout, there was still need to provide. One of the things Katrina and I noticed when we were working down at Harmony Hall was just the looks on peoples' faces and how thankful they were that they were still able to get some awesome takeout because at the time so much had shut down in town. And it just sort of brightened their days and it was something they looked forward to, to be able to get takeout and not have to cook dinner on top of homeschooling their kids and everything else. So I think that was when we realized takeout is going to be integral during this pandemic. So we really had to start focusing on takeout and making it really easy for people to still be able to have the pleasure of not having to cook at home.

What was the biggest challenge to your business?

Katrina: I’d say the biggest challenge was navigating the growth. Our biggest challenge, prior to having this space, was having prep space, an area where we could prep the food.

Karla: And not just the prep space but the capacity, to be able to order more and keep on top of inventory and supply. We were outgrowing the kitchen we were in. We realized we needed more space and more storage and the capacity to produce more. That’s where the idea came to open our own kitchen. No build is easy! It was a big six-month adventure. It took longer than we probably fathomed in the beginning. But it’s worth it to have our own space.

Katrina: Doing that through the pandemic was challenging as well. Everybody sort of had a similar idea. It was really hard to secure all the help we needed to make the build happen.

Has the pandemic opened up any opportunities for your business?

Katrina: For us focusing on takeout. Like Karla says: our takeout game is strong.

Karla: Coming from a food truck background, people did associate our business with take away. So in a way that already was a stepping stone to opening a restaurant while still focusing on take away. People knew that they could get our food on the go and take it to the beach or the ferry or home. So definitely take away was what we focused our model on.

Anything you’d like to add?

Katrina: Just that we’re really grateful for the community’s support. It has felt good over the last year. I feel like we have really provided for people but at the same time people really showed up for us. And I think that’s really important to identify, that we really see a spike when there’s pubic call outs on social media and we appreciate that. It’s what’s allowed this to happen. It’s a really big deal to us.

Karla: Through the pandemic and even to this day, the community really has had small business' backs. They want to see us and everybody survive the pandemic and be there for when this is all over and back to normal. We couldn’t be more thankful to the community for supporting us.

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