Canadian Foodservice Businesses in Turmoil Amid Potential Delays for COVID Vaccinations

Restaurants Canada is calling for a national working group to pave the way for the foodservice sector’s revival, building on the commitment in the federal government’s 2020 Fall Economic Statement to provide targeted, sector-specific support to restaurants and other “hardest hit” businesses.

On Tuesday, a group in the foodservice industry pulled together for a national news conference to highlight the plight of the industry and to call for immediate action.

According to the November Labour Force Survey from Statistics Canada, there are still more than 260,000 fewer jobs in the foodservice sector than there were in February. This is 21 percent of the restaurant workforce still not recovered. No other industry continues to face this level of shortfall.

Todd Barclay
Todd Barclay

Todd Barclay, Restaurants Canada President and CEO, said restaurants are simply trying to keep afloat right now and the industry has been the hardest hit during this crisis, adding that COVID-19 has been catastrophic for the industry.

“If we want to build back a stronger, more resilient Canada that continues to reflect our country’s incredible diversity, our industry is the best place to start. However, the only way to ensure that all these jobs return is if restaurants are able to survive and recover from the extraordinary challenges we’re currently facing,” said Barclay.

“We’ve already lost more than 10 percent of restaurants across the country. That’s 10,000 small businesses across the country now gone forever. According to our latest December 2020 survey, half of all foodservice businesses are at risk of closing within the next six months.”

He said eight out of 10 survey respondents indicated they were losing money or “just barely scraping by” and 65 percent said they were continuing to operate at a loss while 19 percent said they were just breaking even.

“That’s why we’re here today calling for a national working group to take our industry from survival to revival. We appreciate the support so far from all levels of government across the country. If it weren’t for critically needed programs like the federal wage subsidy and provinces stepping up to protect commercial tenants from evictions, we would have lost more restaurants by now,” explained Barclay.

“We’re calling for the establishment of a national restaurant revival working group to build on (the federal government’s commitment to providing targeted sector specific support to restaurants and other hardest hit businesses) in its 2020 fall economic statement. What we’re envisioning is a forum for coordinated action to encourage and support innovative multi-stakeholder discussions that will ensure restaurant operators are set up for success in the post-pandemic economic environment. Restaurants impacted by significant restrictions are going to continue to need sufficient, efficient and effective aid throughout the rest of this economic and public health crisis. There are still many months ahead for all of us collectively managing through this pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of employees and tens of thousands of business owners in our sector want a sense of certainty that they will be supported as long as it takes to get through this.”

According to Restaurants Canada, between March and April, more than 800,000 workers in the Canadian foodservice sector lost their jobs or had their hours of work reduced to zero and 426,900 restaurant jobs were recovered between May and September, but then the industry began to lose ground again in October.

Barclay said that prior to the pandemic Canadian restaurants were serving 22 million customers across the country every day, adding that the average restaurant has spent at least $20,000 on training, safety equipment and new procedures to keep their staff and customers safe.

“Collectively our industry has invested more than $750 million to be able to keep operating in this new normal,” he said.

Barclay added that a vaccine in place in a timely fashion is important for the sector.

Larry Isaacs
Larry Isaacs

“A vaccine that is implemented across the country will give people the opportunity to engage in more of a normal way of life. It is important. We applaud areas of the country that are using data to drive the decisions as to how they are allowing for people to visit restaurants across the country.  The data that we have suggests that we are a safe place for people to come and enjoy experiences with their family and their friends and appropriate settings where significant dollars and people have been invested in terms of ensuring that people will stay safe.

“As much as a vaccine is something that certainly will be important for all of us from a societal perspective, we believe that there’s things we can do in working with government to continue to move forward and allow for the industry to be open and serve our guests safely.”

Larry Isaacs, President of The Firkin Group of Pubs based in Markham, Ontario, said the narrative out there that restaurants are part of the cause of the spread of the virus is part of the industry’s problem.

“So the perception from potential customers is that it isn’t safe to come and visit us. As soon as there’s a vaccine in place it will mentally change the minds of the consumer to feel comfortable going out again. It’s absolutely critical. There’s no question,” he said.

“The industry has been decimated. The stats show potentially 60 percent of independent restaurants will be closed in the next three months, people out of jobs, taxes aren’t being paid to the government. I mean it’s devastating what’s going on. The sooner we get back to whatever’s called normality the better for the whole world. At the end of the day, it almost looks like people will have to be walking around with a vaccine passport or vaccine ID in order for everybody to feel confident.

“We are looking somewhere around October as a potential for seeing our customers being vaccinated. That’s what we are estimating from a planning point of view.”

Isaacs was referring to the typical demographic for his business.

“The sooner it (vaccine) gets here the sooner they have a plan to execute it I think people will breathe easier.”

Michael Kehoe, a retail and restaurant specialist with Fairfield Commercial Real Estate in Calgary, said a vaccine will be a very important step in the economic recovery for the restaurant sector.

Michael Kehoe
Michael Kehoe

“I believe it’s not going to occur as quickly as politicians and the media are expecting. I think this could be beyond an eight or 10 month recovery period and I believe it’s critical for diners to have confidence to feel that they’re safe to go out. The all-important female diner with their families in tow is a critical component to the industry and until they feel completely safe going out I think the recovery will not occur,” said Kehoe.

“It could take several months for everybody to be inoculated and to be proven that it is safe to go out again.”

Kehoe said an important audience for the dining sector is the mature customer who at this point in time and for the foreseeable future is not comfortable going out.

“Any delays, any hiccups or speed bumps along the way with respect to the delivery implementation of the vaccine will hurt consumer confidence and delay the recovery,” he added.

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He now works on his own as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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