Posh food, less service: will customers bite?

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A man walks into a café and heads straight for the counter. After consulting the menu board, he orders the lemon-roasted free-range chicken with orzo salad and a glass of Chardonnay. He pays, tossing some money into the tip jar. He sits down and reads a newspaper at his table, sipping his wine while he waits five minutes for his dinner to arrive. Others around him are drinking Americanos and surfing the Net on their laptops.

Anthony Sterne, general manager at Commune Café (1002 Seymour Street), feels that Vancouverites are embracing this new type of establishment. “It’s kind of a hybrid between a coffee shop and a restaurant,” he says. He and co-owner Amir Samei sit in one of the café’s grey-felt booths as they explain how Commune is targeting a previously untapped niche market: people who want high-quality food without the hassle of tedious, drawn-out sit-down service.

The moment you enter Commune, you realize it isn’t some Starbucks rival. As at branches of the coffee chain, the counter staff are efficient and friendly, but this is no cloned franchise location with generic seating and a bland colour palette. Instead, the space is stylishly hip, with a long communal table, bold red chairs, and cork pendant lamps. Prices for sandwiches are higher than at Subway, but Samei points out that customers aren’t exactly getting hoagies built with factory-made cold cuts.

Food consultant Tina Fineza has created breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus for the café that make use of local, organic, sustainable ingredients. Best of all, dishes can be quickly heated or assembled once customers place their order. There’s everything from wild smoked salmon, capers, dill, and cream cheese on Russian rye bread ($8) for brekkie to a tri-cheese baked bucatini pasta ($14) after 5 p.m.

Still, since it does feel a bit weird ordering vino at the cash register, Samei isn’t ruling out the introduction of table service at dinner sometime in the future.

Everything Café (75 East Pender Street), which opened in May, has already changed its service style, which was initially counter-service only. People were plunking themselves down at a table at lunchtime, expecting a server to appear. The café now lives up to its name by providing a little bit of everything, from counter service during off-hours to more traditional wait-staff service midday.

By phone, owner Sean Heather talks about the challenges this mishmash of service has created when it comes to scheduling and compensating staff. Tips are pooled to make sure take-home pay is equitable, and employees take turns waiting on tables.

Heather believes this mixed-beast establishment hits the sweet spot in a marketplace where fine dining has taken a hit, and midrange places with broader appeal remain more profitable. “People are happy not to eat off a tablecloth as long as the food is the same quality as it used to be,” Heather says.

The Stumptown Coffee Roasters’ location in Portland’s Ace Hotel served as the model for the “affordable luxury” that Heather wanted to emulate with Everything. Must-haves were attractive décor (he’s particularly fond of the 28-foot red leather banquette), a solid coffee selection, and good-quality food that belies the stripped-down service.

Pretty much everything is house-made within Heather’s restaurant group (which includes the Irish Heather and Judas Goat Taberna), from the rye bread for the Reuben sandwich ($9) to the meatballs served on a sub bun with shaved ricotta salata (a dried, pressed salted sheep’s milk cheese) and rustic tomato sauce ($8).

Eight dollars does seem somewhat steep for a sandwich, especially if you order it at the till and aren’t served, but Heather is banking on customers choosing to regularly treat themselves to plush coffee shop experiences, instead of shelling out 30 bucks elsewhere once in a while for a fine-dining entrée.

Sweeney’s of Yaletown (1091 Hamilton Street) describes what it does as “slow-fast food”. That’s further evidence that this new breed of casual eateries takes its food seriously. The café offers counter service for speedy lunchtime meals as well as sit-down service for dinner. Chef Glenn Saunders explains by phone that lunch is kept low-key as an alternative to more formal restaurants nearby.

Menu items are made from scratch and rely on fresh, local ingredients. Sandwiches are passed over the counter within a few minutes of ordering. Options such as tuna tataki with togarashi spice, watercress, and avocado on a baguette ($8.50) and crispy duck confit with Asian slaw and mustard-miso sauce on a sesame roll ($9.50) are a far cry from lowbrow on-the-fly options.

“I think we’ve really developed a fast-food society which expects their food in two minutes. I’d prefer to go back in time and really enjoy our food,” Saunders says. Have customers warmed to upscale fast food with these recently opened, in-between spots? Only the register receipts, one sandwich at a time, will tell.

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