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Lean cuisine

Much like the people afflicted by the COVID-19 itself, the pandemic’s effect on the hospitality industry varies from manageable to catastrophic.

Jim Bence, president and chief executive officer of the Saskatchewan Hotel and Hospitality Association, called it a “perfect storm.” First came the lockdowns this spring, and with it, recreational travel almost entirely stopping.

Major events such as Canadian Western Agribition in Regina and the Western Canadian Crop Production Show in Saskatoon that usually fuel demand for rooms and meals were either cancelled outright or moved online.

Restaurants had their capacity cut and cut again, although some managed to pivot to a take-out model to preserve some revenue.

Hotels were almost totally deserted after people stopped travelling. However, since they were not actually ordered to close, there were no government supports as revenue dropped to near-zero.

“There aren’t enough superlatives left anymore,” Bence said. “There just aren’t enough words to describe how bad this is.”

At Mabel Hill Farm Kitchen and Marketplace just outside of Nipawin in northeastern Saskatchewan, owner Michael Brownlee knows something of this first-hand. Two years ago, the 28-year-old had a vision for a destination business, including a restaurant, a market garden, and a country venue for events.

The enterprise quickly built a reputation for its globally inspired, locally sourced “comfort food.” It pulls in customers from as far away as Saskatoon and Regina, nearly a four-hour drive away.

“It’s kind of a big city dining experience in the middle of nowhere,” Brownlee said.

The location benefits from its proximity to lake country (Tobin Lake is nearby) and its associated tourism industries.

Faced with much-reduced seating inside due to the pandemic, Mabel Hill Farm Kitchen and Marketplace near Nipawin added seating and serving on its wrap-around veranda. | Mabel Hill photo

“I think it helps that we’re in a touristy area. We’ve got really good golf and really good fishing.”

Then April came. A three-month lockdown meant managing mortgage, utilities, and other fixed costs with no revenue.

Government programs helped keep Brownlee in business. He invested in a new pavilion to take advantage of strong event bookings.

Things looked better in the summer. While restaurant tables had to be spaced out and inside capacity had to be cut in half, more tables were added to the veranda for the summer. But customers were nervous; fewer people were coming out to dine. Then the events market dried up.

“If we could be open… but a lot of us were restricted so much,” Brownlee said. “For instance, I lost 10 weddings that we were planning for the summer.”

Local government has been unsympathetic, said Brownlee. He and other owners in the hospitality industry approached rural municipal council for relief with no success. At least one is ready to shut down and sell everything.

“Our taxes are like four or five, eight times higher than the average farmer out here,” Brownlee said. “Property taxes are through the roof.”

High RM taxes also nudged Mark and Anastasia Mitchell into town when they were looking for a new location for Brews Brothers Bistro in Neepawa, Man. Mark said taxes outside the town limits were four times higher.

They had considered buying their 117-year-old heritage building for several years. When it became available in September 2019, they bought it and immediately started planning and executing renovations in December.

“We stayed open while we were renovating, as long as we possibly could,” Mark said. “Then come March, of course, COVID happens.”

The bistro switched to takeout only, and the community continued to support the local business. But this fell off as people started to lose their jobs during the lockdown. They stopped eating out. Weekly revenues dropped to the point it wasn’t worth it to keep the doors open, so Mark and Anastasia decided to complete the renovations.

By the end of August, they were finished, with just the last bits of red tape to clear.

“Finally in October we were able to get open,” Mark said. “We were riding high on the hog for three weeks. Then it closed down on us again.”

As COVID cases prompted the Manitoba government to close down the province again, the community rallied to help their local bistro, buying takeout and gift certificates.

“Neepawa has been amazing as far as the support,” Mark said. “They realize we dumped everything that we had into the building and into the restaurant and trying to get everything ready to go.”

While times are challenging, he said they anticipate being able to ride out the storm for the next few months.

Meanwhile in Alberta, Terry Myhre of the Chuckwagon Café in Turner Valley just southwest of Calgary was of two minds: he needed to stay open, but he would have liked to close.

The café is known for the quality of its food, some of which comes directly from Myhre’s herd of Murray Grey beef cattle. Typical menu items are steak and eggs, breakfast burritos, huevos rancheros, biscuits and gravy, a flat-iron benny, and burgers.

“We try to promote the beef,” Myhre said.

With decades of success as a restaurateur and cattle producer, he’s financially secure. But his mostly young employees rely on their jobs to pay their bills.

At the same time, he’s has a personal window into the COVID-19 front-lines.

“My sister-in-law is an emerg doctor at (Calgary) Foothills (hospital), so I’ve got enough first-hand stuff that I feel for them,” he said. “I mean, they’re so frustrated, they’re so mad, they’re so tired, scared.

And you know? She’s got a family to come home to and worry about bringing something home.”

During the spring lockdown, programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit helped Myhre’s staff. The Alberta government’s efforts to keep the economy open meant no support for people to stay home.

So they did their best. They cut seating capacity by half and instituted thorough sanitation protocols as per government directions. They renovated to add a new take-out window.

Still, Myhre fretted.

“I don’t know what the answer is. If it wasn’t for the fact I need to worry about them making a living too, I would just shut the door,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair to the health-care professionals, what we’re doing, staying open. I’d rather we all just stayed home.”

On Dec. 8, Myhre got his wish. Faced with the highest COVID-19 rates in the country, Alberta premier Jason Kenney announced a broad new set of restrictions, limiting gatherings, closing gyms and recreational facilities and making masks mandatory. Restaurants, cafes and bars are closed, restricted to takeout only. As with this spring, the lockdown makes affected businesses and workers eligible for federal and provincial help.

Ernie Tsu, president of the Alberta Hospitality Association and proprietor of Trolley 5 Restaurant and Brewery in Calgary, said only about one percent of COVID-19 cases came from restaurants and bars, so his members feel unfairly singled out for restrictions.

Nevertheless, businesses have been working hard to meet government regulations to keep customers safe and keep their doors open despite a 30 to 50 percent drop in revenue. As the province locks down again, Trolley 5 is switching back to take-out only.

“Our association hopes that everyone gets through this OK,” Tsu said. “Now, supporting local is more important than ever.”

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