Even in the middle of a pandemic that’s crippled the Canadian restaurant industry, farmer and entrepreneur Arlie Laroche says 2019 might have been the best possible time to open a restaurant — at least a restaurant that’s focused on sourcing local food.
In 2019, Laroche and her business partners — husband Brett Laroche, general manager Lacey Sellinger and head chef Scott Dicks — opened a new restaurant called Odla.
The Saskatoon restaurant sources, prepares and serves locally produced and locally processed foods, many of them from Laroche’s own farm near Vanscoy, Sask.
“At Odla, all of the protein except for the chicken — so the pork, beef and lamb — is all coming from my own farm and a lot of the veggies will be coming from my farm this year as well, so when a customer comes into our restaurant, they actually know where most of the ingredients are coming from,” Laroche says.
“Being able to open a restaurant was our way of being able to bring a little bit of the farm to the city — to help people rebuild that connection to the farm.”
Odla’s business model is not new but the concept is quickly gaining support among restaurant patrons who prefer local food.
Support for Laroche’s farm-to-fork restaurant model was strong even before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Western Canada, she says.
Recent supply chain disruptions affecting large-scale meat processors have further exposed the fragility of Canada’s food supply chain and have heightened awareness of local supply chain resiliency.
In Laroche’s view, the future has never looked better for restaurants that are focused on local food and small scale processing, even despite the obvious challenges presented by COVID-19.
“I said to my husband that 2019 and 2020 was probably the worst time in history to open a restaurant but the type of restaurant we opened, in some ways, couldn’t be more timely.”
“Our customers say they see more resiliency in a more localized system and I think that will continue after COVID because the system that we have today is very fragile,” she says, referring to plant closures and health and safety concerns at mega-slaughter facilities in Alberta and Quebec.
“If one (beef) plant goes down and you can lose something like 30 percent of the country’s cutting and wrapping capabilities, that’s a very insecure system.”
That’s not to say that COVID hasn’t presented challenges.
Within nine months of opening Odla, Laroche and her partners were forced to close the restaurant’s dining room in compliance with provincial COVID-19 guidelines.
The suspension of on-premise dining meant the loss of a key income stream for the new enterprise.
But the pandemic also reinforced Laroche’s belief that the benefits of eating and shopping locally have never been more obvious.
Food industry analysts have been telling food producers and processors for some time that today’s discerning consumers are more concerned than ever about how their food is produced and where it comes from.
Prior to opening her own restaurant, Laroche had been supplying fresh, locally sourced ingredients to other Saskatoon restaurants.
The decision to get into the restaurant business was, at least in part, intended to give Laroche more control over how her farm’s products were used.
“When a restaurant wants to buy a case of rib-eyes from you, you still have to butcher a whole beef to get those rib-eyes. But when the rib-eyes are gone, what do you do with the rest of the beef?
“I guess I wanted to have a bit more control over what restaurants were doing with my products and how they were being used.”
Since Odla closed its dining room, direct farmgate sales of pork, beef and lamb from Laroche’s Vanscoy-area farm — Farm One Forty — have also increased.
Unlike meat products that come from large-scale processing plants, the meat supplied by Laroche is handled by two or three people and each carcass is processed individually, minimizing the risk of recalls due contamination and commingling.
“If anybody wants a pig cut and wrapped, I can supply that in two weeks, no problem,” she says.
“If you buy pork from me, that pork literally goes through two or three people’s hands — me when I take it to the butcher and one or two people at the butcher shop who cut and wrap it. That’s two or three people in the entire supply chain.”
On the restaurant side, today’s dining patrons are interested in reconnecting with the food they eat, even if they don’t have time to spend a day visiting a farm or chatting with producers, Laroche adds.
That was evident when Odla opened its dining room last year.
“It was pretty well received,” she says.
“When we opened the doors, it was pretty well crazy in there from Day 1. I think people really liked the concept.”
What wasn’t expected was the pandemic that resulted in the closure of almost every on-premise dining room in Canada.
So far, Odla has been able to stay afloat thanks to an on-site marketplace that sells locally sourced foods.
“Odla is a restaurant but’s there’s also a small market attached … that was able to stay open…,” she says.
“We’ve expanded our product offerings there and we’re also doing take-out food but it’s nothing like having the restaurant open.”
Government programs aimed at helping the industry are well-intended, Laroche adds, but the one-size-fits-all prescription devised by governments won’t be a perfect solution for all operators, she warns.
Inevitably, some restaurants will fall through the cracks and won’t qualify for the help they need.
To receive government assistance through federal emergency assistance programs, restaurants must show proof that year-over-year revenues have fallen by 70 percent.
Because Odla hasn’t been open for a year, it won’t be able to provide evidence of year-over-year financial damage.
In addition, the ability to resume on-site dining at 50 percent capacity may not be worthwhile.
On-premise dining will generate extra revenues, but it’s unclear at this point whether that extra revenue will be enough to cover higher operating expenses, she adds.
Some restaurant industry stakeholders have even suggested that the 70 percent revenue threshold to qualify for federal assistance might have acted as a disincentive for restaurant owners to come up with innovative solutions aimed at maintaining a larger portion of their overall revenues.
“It’s kind of frustrating… but I get it,” says Laroche.
“You have to have thresholds and I wouldn’t want to be in the politicians’ shoes right now. That would be a tough place to be, trying to put these programs into place. I can’t imagine how hard that would be so they’re doing what they can….
“You just have to keep going and do what you have to do to survive.”