Many restaurants have closed in response to COVID-19. (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)

Many restaurants have closed in response to COVID-19. (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)

‘It’s been very, very tough’: B.C. chef echoes industry concerns of possible COVID re-closure

Food service sales crashed in April, dropping to $2.4 billion for the entire industry

By Marc Fawcett-Atkinson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer

Paul Natrall misses balmy, busy, bustling evenings serving bannock at summer festivals.

They’ve been the norm for the Squamish Nation chef and food truck owner who specializes in Indigenous fusion cuisine. Since he opened the business in 2017, Natrall — better known as “Mr. Bannock” — has been a popular fixture at festivals and other gatherings across B.C.’s Lower Mainland. Not this year.

“Pre-COVID, in the summertime, we were at huge events,” he said. “We’d make good (money that) would last us the whole year. Sadly, that’s not the case this year.”

British Columbia banned gatherings of more than 50 people when the pandemic started in March and most festivals and other events — the heart of Natrall’s business — were cancelled this year. And he wasn’t alone: Lockdowns and physical-distancing measures have had a dramatic toll on Canada’s food service industry as a whole.

Food service sales crashed in April, dropping to $2.4 billion for the entire industry — the lowest sales reported in more than 20 years, according to a July survey by Restaurants Canada.

Restaurants, bars, and caterers like Natrall (food trucks are technically caterers) were hit particularly hard, reporting between a 75 per cent to 90 per cent drop that month.

Unsurprisingly, this crash was reflected in dramatic unemployment, with the industry reporting 615,000 laid-off workers in March and April — roughly a fifth of all layoffs in the country. And another 202,000 people remained employed, but didn’t work any hours.

The situation has improved slightly over the summer, with lockdowns easing and patio service making it easier for many establishments to operate, but in July, the industry remained more than 300,000 jobs short of where it was before the pandemic started.

“It’s been very, very tough,” Mark von Schellwitz, Restaurants Canada’s vice-president for Western Canada, said.

“Not only where we were, but where we are (now) is very difficult.”

In a recent survey, more than 90 per cent of the organization’s members said they expected their autumn sales to be significantly lower compared to last year — and that it will take several years for them to recover, even if no further restrictions put in place, he said.

The industry already operates on a razor-thin margin, von Schellwitz explained, and the pandemic has forced most establishments to take on significant debt — even with federal and provincial supports.

These supports have proved vital, and maintaining them will be essential to helping the industry as a whole recover within a year or two. If they end before there is a vaccine or pandemic restrictions are lifted, it could take up to three years for the industry to find itself on stable financial ground, he said.

“Without ongoing and new assistance, many in the food service industry will not make it,” warns an August submissionfrom Restaurants Canada to the federal standing committee on industry, science, and technology.

In the meantime, everyone in the industry is doing what they can to stay afloat. Including Natrall.

“We’ve taken odd jobs here and there, we’re offering takeout and pick-up from North Vancouver, and I’ve been doing lots of digital media and social media,” he said.

These moves haven’t brought him anywhere close to his sales volumes of previous years.

“We signed up for DoorDash and Uber Eats, but it hasn’t been busy,” he said.

Von Schellwitz also pointed out that the service fees these delivery companies charge restaurants mean that, often, they barely break even.

And as a caterer, Natrall can only sell at events or from his main location on one of the Squamish Nation’s reserves in North Vancouver.

That’s tough for business: Relatively few people pass through the community, he said, especially because of the pandemic.

The nation was on full lockdown until mid-May, and several recently announced cases in the community have Natrallworried — for his community, other Indigenous businesses, food and tourism businesses, and his food truck.

First Nations in B.C. have been extremely proactive in regard to the pandemic, with local lockdowns and other measures preventing a potentially devastating surge of cases in most communities. That has had a significant impact on tourism operators — including some chefs, Natrall said.

About 91 per cent of Indigenous Tourism BC’s stakeholders reported they had to close or operate at a limited capacity because of the pandemic, while 74 per cent of these businesses needed to lay off employees.

It’s a grim situation that’s filled with uncertainty.

“I just really hope everything doesn’t start getting shut down again. That would be bad, not just for Mr. Bannock, but every single food and beverage industry,” Natrall said.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The old Yount school in Youbou has stood empty for years, but now a group has plans to turn it into a mixed-use property with affordable housing and tourist services. (Submitted)
Group sets sights on tranforming old Yount school property in Youbou

School District 79 has already commenced a process to sell the school through a formal proposal call

North Cowicha to extend the time lines of its official community plan update. (File photo)
North Cowichan to extend time line of OCP review

Municipality also adds $55,000 to OCP budget

Cowichan Capitals’ Logan Rands digs for the puck along the boards in the Alberni Valley Bulldogs’ zone midway through the third period of their BC Hockey League game at the Alberni Valley Multiplex on Saturday, April 10, 2021. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
Cowichan Capitals pick up first two wins of BCHL season

Brockman, Moffatt both up to four goals on the year

A nearly four-hour standoff at an apartment complex on Cowichan Lake Road in Duncan ended peacefully on Wednesday, April 14. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Standoff at Duncan apartment ends peacefully

Police surround building as homeowner held in apartment by adult son

B.C. Centre for Disease Control maps showing new COVID-19 cases by local health area for the week of April 4-10. (BCCDC image)
Parksville-Qualicum passes Nanaimo in new COVID-19 cases

Greater Victoria had more new cases than any other Island area: B.C. Centre for Disease Control

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as she walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Top doctor warns B.C.’s daily cases could reach 3,000 as COVID hospitalizations surge

There are more than 400 people in hospital, with 125 of them in ICU

The father of Aaliyah Rosa planted a tree and laid a plaque in her memory in 2018. (Langley Advance Times files)
Final witness will extend Langley child murder trial into May or June

Lengthy trial began last autumn with COVID and other factors forcing it to take longer than expected

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The corner of 96th Avenue and Glover Road in Fort Langley now has traffic signals, and new “touchless” signal activation buttons. (Matthew Claxton/Langley Advance Times)
Busy Fort Langley intersection gets ‘touchless’ crosswalk signals

The new traffic light started operation in April

A crossing guard stops traffic as students wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 arrive at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. A number of schools in the Fraser Health region, including Woodward Hill, have reported cases of the B.1.7.7 COVID-19 variant first detected in the U.K. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID-infected students in Lower Mainland schools transmitting to 1 to 2 others: data

Eight to 13 per cent of COVID cases among students in the Lower Mainland were acquired in schools, B.C. says

Norm Scott, president of Royal Canadian Legion Branch # 91, is disappointed the Legion does not qualify for COVID financial assistance from the provincial government. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C.’s pandemic aid package passing Legion branches by

Federal non-profit status stymies provincial assistance eligibility

Latest modelling by public health shows cases generated by COVID-19 infections into places where it can spread quickly. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
Industrial sites, pubs, restaurants driving COVID-19 spread in B.C.

Infection risk higher in offices, retail, warehouses, farms

Hwy. 4 was shut down in both directions for 10 hours on March 23 as a rock bluff was blasted as part of Kennedy Hill’s ongoing construction. Commuters can expect five more 10 hour closures on five consecutive Wednesdays beginning April 28. (Photo courtesy of Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure)
Five 10-hour Pacific Rim highway closures planned in the next 6 weeks

Closures needed for rock blasting as part of the Kennedy Hill Safety Improvement project.

Most Read