Restaurateur sees life for beef after COVID pandemic

A restaurant chain that stakes part of its reputation on serving Canadian beef sees opportunities for the beef industry despite the ravages COVID-19 has wreaked on the food service sector.

Marcel Blais is president of Chop Steakhouse and Bar, a chain that sources 100 percent Canadian beef and was the first restaurant chain to use the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) logo on its menus.

“The CRSB in our opinion is at a pivotal moment in time where we can really leverage what’s going on in the marketplace and take action immediately to really move our agenda forward and improve the understanding of the sustainability efforts that are already going on and continue to take place with respect to the beef industry,” said Blais in a recent webinar organized by the CRSB.

The beef roundtable is a multi-stakeholder group through which beef producers can be certified as sustainable if they meet specific criteria on safety, animal welfare, environmental care and innovation.

Chop has 14 restaurants in Canada and in mid-March closed all of them, laying off more than 1,000 people. Two weeks later, it reopened some restaurants to provide food takeout and delivery.

As restrictions related to viral spread are eased, Blais said he thinks a full recovery is at least 18 months away. He predicts his chain will regain half its pre-COVID revenue in June, 65 percent by July and will be up to 75 percent by August.

Temporary closure of the restaurants allowed him and his management team to discuss trends, among them the future of beef on the menu.

Among those they identified was more intense consumer focus on food source transparency.

“We don’t believe that is a temporary thing. We believe that it’s a long term wave, that people are going to access getting great Canadian steak from us and to do so through (takeout) and delivery, so we plan on doubling down there,” Blais said.

Listing sustainable local beef as a specific menu item will be part of that.

Blais also said Chop will add more vegan items to its menu. He admitted that seems counter intuitive for a steak house but the goal is to be inclusive. People dine in groups so menus must offer something for everyone.

Bob Lowe, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said he too thinks the beef industry might be able to capitalize on changed consumer attitudes resulting from the pandemic.

“When I took over the reins at CCA, one of my goals was to raise the profile of food. I didn’t want it to be because there wasn’t any,” said Lowe.

“I think we have had just enough shortages of a few items, beef being one, to make customers aware and maybe not take for granted the idea that food will always be there.”

He added that the crisis has pointed out weak links in the beef food chain, which can now be addressed.

Worker illness and absenteeism at major beef plants caused temporary meat shortages on retail shelves and forced a backlog of fat cattle awaiting slaughter.

“Some are suggesting that smaller, more regional plants might be the answer but I would counter with, if the packers had not been hit as hard as they were, would the incentive have been there to implement all of the strategies that they did to protect themselves and their employees from future threats?”

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