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It’s almost two years to the day since BC provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry shocked Vancouver restaurants with a snap decision to limit alcohol sales past 8pm on New Year's Eve. While meant to manage concerns around parties, many in the industry felt the move was unfair to establishments and would have significant negative economic impacts.
It felt like a low point for the industry, which was already reeling from the effects of COVID laws and lockdowns. At the time, Ian Tostenson, the president and CEO of the BC Restaurant and Food Services Association feared the move would end up as a fatal blow for some of its members. “I think this will push people over the edge,” he said to the Canadian Press. “I think a lot of restaurants won’t have enough financial power to get through to the spring.”
While he was perhaps correct about closures, not even he could predict the rebound the sector appears to be enduring on the heels of national and international recognition, positive policy changes, and general momentum. In fact, when recently asked about the state of the hospitality scene over the phone, Tostenson sounds an upbeat note. “I would characterize it as Humpty Dumpty,” he says. “We're putting it all back together again.”
The Straight spoke to a number of industry insiders over the week. The consensus opinion when reflecting on the past year: good news and good vibes–and, most importantly, good business. Tostenson says a number of factors have led to positive sales numbers over the past year, including the end of mask and vaccine mandates, which were still in place last Christmas, in addition to heightened recognition of BC’s dining talent. “It's been a good year for our reputations with the acknowledgements that we’ve received,” Tostenson notes.
After a series of major accolades, Vancouver ends the year with its culinary trophy cabinet full. The first hardware to land came in the spring when 21 B.C. restaurants made Canada’s top 100 list for 2022. Five local restaurants made the top 25, including Hawksworth (25), Oca Pastificio (23), Boulevard (9), St. Lawrence (3), and Published on Main (1). It was the first time ever a Vancouver establishment landed first on the list. But this year the local dining scene is being recognized across the pond, too. Last month, La Liste, a France-based awards program ranked 21 Canadian restaurants on its list, including four from the 604.
And while it has been covered ad nauseam, locals we spoke to repeat that the Michelin Guide's arrival in Vancouver–and the recognition of eight one-star restaurants–is the biggest development the city has seen this year.
Hamid Salimian, a culinary instructor at Vancouver Community College and co-owner of Popina Canteen on Granville Island, says, “Michelin puts Vancouver on a map.” He says there will be discussions about who got one or not, but “when you remove yourself” from the debate, “Michelin validates what we have in Vancouver, internationally.”
But chefs, beware: it’s one of the only awards that can be taken away, as Mijune Pak, a judge on multiple Food Network shows, including Top Chef Canada, reminds us. “You get [an] Oscar, you have that for life,” she explains. “You have a Grammy, you have that for life. The star–next year, you might not have it, and that’s kind of crazy.”
Pak believes all the recognition taken together puts pressure on the city’s kitchens, in a positive way. “I think all these awards Vancouver is being recognized for–it keeps the energy up. I felt like before, there was nothing really a chef could reach for. And you know, a lot of people are going to be like, ‘I don't care.’ Some people are going to be like, ‘You know, we never needed that recognition, we're just going to keep whatever we do.’ But no, everybody appreciates the recognition,” she argues.
But anyone in the restaurant business knows there are sweat and tears that precede the prizes. There’s the real business of running a dining establishment, and BC. restaurants are still grappling with a lack of labour and a changing economy.
The sector has welcomed various wins that include the ability to permanently buy liquor at wholesale prices last year and a restaurant delivery fee cap, notes Tostenson. However, he says the hospitality industry is still learning how to “create careers that reflect the values of the current culture in the workforce right now, which is work-life balance and meaningful workplaces.”
“Long term, we need to do a very good job at reminding people how awesome this industry is to work in and re-market ourselves to the public,” he says.
Part of that process, Pak advocates, is ensuring workers are making living wages “without relying on tips” so that “people see it as a professional industry that they can make a living off of.”
Deseree Lo, a chef with Blank Slate Catering and the Top Chef Canada Season 10 runner-up, believes wages in the industry have “improved tremendously,” in part due to the labour crunch. And as for work-life balance, “I think in Canada people have it very good,” she shares. “Of course, there are people who work 10, 12, 15 [hour days]–but that's by choice.”
For what her peers in the industry can work towards or improve on, Lo says taking risks. “People need to accept differences and diversity. That's why there are so many successful restaurants in New York or even in Chicago, or LA or Houston, because they're able to do different things and not really worry about what people think.”
She says to achieve that in a city like Vancouver, it may require some education for patrons, including herself. “But if you explain to me where it's from, and how it's done, and why it's delicious, and the story behind it … I'll try it.”