The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the local restaurant industry very, very hard.
Many food establishments around town have already voluntarily closed at the beginning of the week in efforts to slow the spread of the virus, with some aiming to limit food waste as much as possible.
The City of Vancouver announced they are exercising new emergency powers to order all restaurants, bars, and cafes to discontinue dine-in services effective midnight (March 20).
B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, also ordered all restaurants in the province to end dine-in options on the same day.
That means all local dining establishments must switch to takeout and delivery services if they want to operate, and some businesses are adapting to it more easily than others.
Meghan Clarke is the co-owner of Tractor Everyday Healthy Foods, which has several locations around Vancouver. She told the Straight in a phone interview that sales have gone down 75 percent at its downtown stores, which are usually its highest-volume spots.
But Clarke said takeout and delivery are helping, and it wasn’t that big of a shift for her business because of its grab-and-go business model.
“A lot of people are ordering online through our online order platforms. We’ve done this for a long time and we have the food on a pick-up rack, and people are in and out of the stores in five seconds,” explained Clarke. “We’ve built our platform on healthy grab-and-go from day one, [and] that’s in the premise of our concept. The shift in being able to provide that is not drastic, because we’ve been doing that for the past 7 years.”
Tractor Foods has just announced they have teamed up with local tech company, Ready, to allow for safer and more convenient ways to order takeout at its Kitsilano location.
Customers can use their phones to directly connect to the restaurant menu, and order items for immediate pick-up or at a later time. If they want to order at the restaurant, there will be a podium for guests to view the menu, order, and pay using only their phones.
“We will fight hard to keep being able to provide healthy, quick-service food to our community,” said Clarke. “We really believe having those alternatives there are important for people.”
The DownLow Chicken Shack (DL Chicken) and Downlow Burgers are also eateries that have originally been created for take-out options, which means it’s a bit easier for these food spots to adapt to the new province-wide restaurant requirements.
“Our model was already built for it so we have obviously had to make some adaptations every step of the way with regards to social distancing and making sure everyone is looked after and taken care of,” Doug Stephen, owner of DL Chicken and Downlow Burgers, told the Straight in a phone interview.
Besides takeout, delivery will also be an added service at the sister eateries.
“We’ve made the decision to do it in-house so we can keep as many as our own team employed as possible,” explained Stephen. “We will continue to operate as safely and responsibly as we possibly can, while maintaining employment for as long as we possibly can.”
Stephen also emphasized that he would never be on food-delivery apps because he would rather maintain the employment of all his staff instead of having to raise prices of menu items due to delivery apps still taking a full cut of sales.
“There are some business models haven’t been able to adapt, and some staff will be in a very difficult situation in a matter of weeks,” said Stephen. “Effectively, this industry has been abandoned.”
He hopes the restaurant industry will shift after this pandemic experience, because he believes it won’t be the last time this happens, so dining establishments will need to adapt to look after everybody.
For Railtown Cafe and Catering, owner Dan Olson acknowledges that his business is more equipped to switch to takeout and delivery than others in the city.
“We have meal to-go programs like our turkey to-go and Easter to-go meals during the holiday seasons, so our kitchens are fully equipped for it, and we are prepared to navigate through this difficult time,” Olson said to the Straight in an email interview.
They have also launched a new meal program that offers large individual heat-and-serve portions. Special discounts are also given to all front-line workers.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a challenging time for Olson and his restaurant and catering business. Railtown has shuttered all four of its brick-and-mortar locations, creating hardships for those who worked in its storefronts. Its catering side has also scaled back operations.
“It is very sad times for our hospitality industry, especially staff that has been with us for a long time,” added Olson. “It is survival of the fittest at the moment, [and] we are taking it one day at a time.”
It’s a different story for Vancouver restaurants traditionally known for its dine-in experience. Unlike the businesses built with modules that can easily switch to takeout and delivery, there’s a much steeper curve for learning and adapting.
Tojo’s Restaurant is one of the most iconic dining establishments in Vancouver. He has been serving his award-winning Japanese cuisine for decades, and has regulars enjoying his food at the bar or in its expansive dining room every week.
But everything has changed for proprietor and chef Hidekazu Tojo.
“You know I am 70 years-old, [and] this is the worst case ever in my life,” Tojo told the Straight in a phone interview. “We have employed many people, some for a long, long time. But we need to change our restaurant style to survive.”
He’s using his creative mind to adjust to the new restaurant regulations.
Tojo has just created a new take-away menu, which will be available for pick-up and delivery Monday through Saturday from 4 to 8 p.m. It includes dishes like a chirashi [scattered] sashimi and veggie bowl, signature rolls, various starters and salads, nigiri, tempura, and larger entrees.
He said sourcing imported seafood has been hard, and will focus on featuring local seafood and vegetables from organic farmers. Special discounts and complimentary dishes will be offered to those working in the front lines.
Don’t expect to find Tojo’s on any food-delivery apps though, because the delivery will be done by its staff.
“We thought it would be nice to have the connection with our customers, and make sure all our staff are still able to work,” added Tojo. “We have lots of customers calling me and saying they miss my food. That’s why we make a very limited menu for to-go.”
Yuwa Japanese Cuisine is another restaurant that primarily focuses creating a unique dine-in experience for guests. It’s a neighbourhood eatery that used to offer a small amount of take-out food for regular customers, but never in this kind of capacity.
“This is obviously a big shift for us,” Iori Kataoka, owner of Yuwa, told the Straight by phone. “The takeout response has been small, [because] we still have to let people know that we are doing takeout,” and hopefully delivery by next week.
Kataoka is working closely with the restaurant chef to create a suitable menu for the new business methods they will have to adapt to. Bento boxes and sushi and sashimi platters are in consideration for the to-go menu.
“We are trying to survive through it, and most importantly, we have to keep employing people even though we don’t make money here,” she added.
When asked what percentage of business she thinks the takeout and delivery services will help recover, Kataoka doesn’t have a definitive answer.
“It’s really hard to say at this moment. We have to consider what people are looking for. We cannot just stick with what we have been doing,” she said. “If I can do 50 percent, [then] I can retain a certain number of people, that’s for sure. That’s kind of our goal.”
It’s not all stormy weather for Yuwa, though. Its owner said many of the resaturant’s frequent guests are calling them and saying they want to support them.
“We get really nice messages from our customers, and we are feeling very thankful for all our regulars,” said Kataoka.
Vancouver’s restaurants are going through a rough patch, but many owners are using their creativity to help them get through these difficult times.
Say Mercy has created “Staff Meal”, which is a menu of 500 ml meals that ranges from $5 to $10 that can be purchased to eat fresh or freeze for later. Committed to giving back to the community, each order placed will require a $2 donation to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank.
Although Ugly Dumpling emphasized it wasn’t a dumpling house, owner Darren Gee is now helping his small business survive by selling its handmade dumplings in frozen form, which has garnered plenty of interest and support from the community.
Popular spots from the Aburi Restaurant Group, such as Miku, Minami, and Gyoza Bar are also introducing to-go menu options for takeout and delivery. Food-lovers will be able to get take-out items like a deluxe sushi platter for three, aburi sushi bento box, ramen, curry, gyozas, and more.
For those who want an easy directive to find take-out menus for pick-up or delivery around town, check out the Breaking Bread initiative—a central hub for restaurants across B.C. and beyond offering everything from curb-side pick-up to delivery, and from meal-prep to groceries.
Food-lovers may not be able to dine in their favourite restaurants during the pandemic, but it’s for the best because social distancing will help flatten the curve. And to be honest, eating your favourite foods in the comfort of your own home might be the best of both worlds.