‘People could lose their livelihoods’: B.C. restaurants plead for support amid ongoing struggles

From labour and food cost increases to ongoing COVID fallout, business isn’t what it used to be for many restaurants in B.C. As Monika Gul reports, this has resulted in the launching of a new campaign, called “Save BC Restaurants."

Restaurant groups in B.C. are sounding the alarm, launching a new campaign Tuesday aimed at “saving” the local hospitality industry.

Calling it a “struggling sector,” the British Columbia Restaurant and Foodservices Association (BCRFA) and Restaurants Canada say “Save BC Restaurants” will raise awareness of the challenges foodservice and hospitality businesses face.

“The last few years have been incredibly tough on restaurants in British Columbia,” said Ian Tostenson, CEO of the BCRFA in a statement. “Pandemic debt, skyrocketing inflation, labour shortages, cost pressures. Many of these businesses are holding on by the skin of their teeth.”

The campaign shares that 50 per cent of foodservice and hospitality businesses in B.C. are unprofitable, while restaurant bankruptcies have increased by over 48 per cent in the last 10 months.

“If we don’t act quickly, a lot of these places could close down. People could lose their livelihoods,” continued Tostenson. “The loss of a longtime restaurant can be devastating for the communities, families, and workers that have come to depend on them.”

The campaign launch comes on the heels of the Jan. 18 deadline for Canadian businesses to repay federal pandemic-related loans in order to receive partial forgiveness.

Hundreds of thousands of businesses and non-profits received a Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loan of up to $60,000 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the groups, more than 15,000 restaurants operate in B.C., employing more than 185,000 workers.

Matthew Senecal-Junkeer, owner of The Birds & The Beets Food Group, says business just isn’t what it used to be for his restaurant in downtown Vancouver.

“What was a pretty decent, busy, and profitable business in 2019 is now sort of a break-even business,” he said.

“We’re sort of cutting back on investments, we’re reducing the menu, reducing hours, trying to squeeze profitability out from less but even then, it’s still been a challenge.”

Speaking to CityNews Tuesday morning, Tostenson claimed the hospitality sector is “more regulated” and has been “hit harder” by the COVID-19 pandemic than other industries across the country.

“All these blisters came to light, as to what the problems were,” he said. “We saw our partners at Restaurants Canada do research that said half the restaurants are losing money in British Columbia, and we asked ourselves, how do we fix this?”

Tostenson describes the industry’s regulations as “uncoordinated … like an orchestra with no conductor and everyone’s playing a different tune.”

“We’ve got an $18-billion industry that’s on life support. There’s a lot of things that government can do that doesn’t cost a lot of money, to get this industry back to where it should be,” he added.

The restaurant groups are calling on municipal and provincial governments to change policies and bylaws, regarding business approvals, “harmonizing liquor laws,” along with cost offsets and relief programs.

Tostenson says the “very obvious” one that can be addressed is the province’s employers health tax. He says the restaurant groups are calling on the province to change the threshold from $500,000 to $1.5 million. Changes to minimum wages are also on the table, he said.

“Right off the bat, we need to have some common-sense discussion this year about minimum wage, because it’s always [tied] to inflation. Last year, it was 6.9 per cent increase in our wages. So, what’s the common-sense approach this year, because who knows what inflation will be — how do you calculate that?”

Tostenson also cites liquor licencing fines as another area that governments could adjust to help businesses.

“There’s a program in British Columbia called the ‘Minors as Agents Program,’ [where] the government goes in, and they’re going, ‘Gotcha, you just served a minor,’ [and they’re handing out] a $7,500 fine on the spot, for, in most cases, an innocent mistake,” he explained.

Tostenson says the groups also want to see the acceleration of permit approvals, such as patio approvals seen in regions across B.C. during the summer. “The bureaucracy complicates these things.”

“There’s certainly safety things on patios we have to be [aware of] but let’s just get on with it. They have to realize that the small business owner, any business owner, doesn’t have the time to be chasing websites and government regulations and trying to understand this stuff,” he said.

For Senecal-Junkeer, this sentiment rings true.

“We’re still, here in Vancouver, seeing a lot of really long delays on a lot of permitting, all those processes are really challenging, in particularly for small, really overworked independent restauranteurs.”

He says closure is not on the horizon, but he knows for many other business owners, it is.

“There’s a 9-alarm fire in our sector,” said Senecal-Junkeer.

In a statement, the City of Vancouver says it’s established a simplified process and faster approvals for some liquor licences and permits, adding it will review the recommendations made by the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association.

The restaurant groups also want governments to take a look at and accelerate the skilled foreign worker program to address labour shortages in the industry.

In response to the groups’ requests, B.C.’s Minister of Jobs, Economic Development and Innovation, says the province supported businesses during the pandemic through grants and continues to in other ways, including a program that gives businesses money for vandalism repairs and prevention, cap on food delivery fees, and wholesale liquor pricing.

Restaurants Canada Vice President Mark von Schellwitz describes restaurants as the “heart” of every community in B.C.

“We’re confident that community leaders across the province will recognize the urgency of the situation at-hand.”

-With files from Monika Gul and Pippa Norman

Top Stories

Top Stories

Most Watched Today