Here’s how the res­tau­rant in­dus­try can help save Canada’s econ­omy

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - OPINION - Dr. Syl­vain Charlebois

The best way to get an econ­omy go­ing again is to get to Cana­di­ans’ wal­lets by way of their stomachs. But it’s a long road.

Up to 25 per cent of restau­rants in Canada have closed for the sea­son and per­haps for good. The Cana­dian Cham­ber of Com­merce ex­pects 60 per cent of restau­rants to close per­ma­nently by Novem­ber. Even if that fore­cast is a lit­tle ex­treme, fear of fail­ure is surg­ing for many es­tab­lish­ments as sum­mer ends.

Ac­cord­ing to Statis­tics Canada and others, rev­enues across the in­dus­try are at about 65 per cent of what they were PRE-COVID-19.

The num­bers show how re­silient some of op­er­a­tors are. Many found great, in­no­va­tive ways to bring food to our doors in lieu of just wait­ing for us to show up.

Since June, though, many of us have showed up. But the fall is now upon us and pa­tio sea­son is al­most over. Res­tau­rant pa­tios have ex­panded. Ci­ties al­lowed for more flex­i­bil­ity, al­low­ing pa­tios in park­ing lots, side­walks and streets.

Chances are we’ll see more pa­tio heaters keep­ing pa­trons warm as op­er­a­tors try to ex­tend the busy sea­son the best they can. Un­for­tu­nately, that only goes so far in Canada.

Menus have of­fered fewer choices to pa­trons, while prices have risen to help op­er­a­tors make half-empty restau­rants prof­itable. We’re clearly see­ing signs of a very weak­ened in­dus­try.

Fear of COVID-19 is cer­tainly one fac­tor keep­ing peo­ple away from restau­rants. Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey con­ducted in Au­gust, more than half of Cana­di­ans plan to re­turn to restau­rants af­ter a sec­ond wave of the virus.

The econ­omy is also prob­lem­atic. Many peo­ple’s pro­fes­sional sit­u­a­tions have changed since the start of COVID-19. Re­cent labour data shows that the Cana­dian econ­omy is still a mil­lion jobs short of Fe­bru­ary statis­tics, prior to pan­demic.

How­ever, the scari­est statis­tic has to do with telecom­mut­ing. Al­most a quar­ter of Cana­di­ans are work­ing for an em­ployer who’s con­sid­er­ing al­low­ing more staff to work from home af­ter the pan­demic. We’re al­ready see­ing how this shift can be dev­as­tat­ing to down­town cores across the coun­try. Peo­ple aren’t com­ing into work — they pre­fer to stay home and when we’re home, our be­hav­iours to­ward food are very dif­fer­ent.

Be­fore the pan­demic, ap­prox­i­mately 38 per cent of our food bud­get was ded­i­cated to food con­sumed out­side the home. We’re likely at 25 per cent now, if not a lit­tle less. The bulk of our money is spent at the gro­cery store to get us busy in our kitchens. And chances are we’re not go­ing back to 38 per cent any time soon. It will take years, not months, for things to re­turn to “nor­mal.”

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s re­luc­tance to use the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try as a means to get our econ­omy on a re­cov­ery path will likely con­tinue.

But if we use restau­rants and ho­tels as bait, con­sumers will buy more than just a meal or ho­tel stay. They’ll buy cloth­ing and other goods, and use more ser­vices, boost­ing the over­all econ­omy.

New Brunswick is help­ing its hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try re­cover by pro­vid­ing an in­cen­tive to cit­i­zens. The Ex­plore NB Travel In­cen­tive pro­gram was cre­ated to stim­u­late the tourism in­dus­try in the wake of the pan­demic. It al­lows New Brunswick­ers to ap­ply for a 20 per cent re­bate on el­i­gi­ble ex­penses while tak­ing a va­ca­tion. That in­cludes paid overnight stays in the prov­ince be­tween July and September.

It’s a bril­liant move to sup­port the tourism in­dus­try and the re­sults are com­pelling: restau­rants and ho­tels are busy.

How­ever, nei­ther the fed­eral gov­ern­ment nor other prov­inces have pur­sued such a pro­gram. Yet for the fall and the harsh win­ter ahead, the in­dus­try needs all the help it can get.

Hos­pi­tal­ity has al­ways been a chal­leng­ing in­dus­try. In the best of times, 80 per cent of restau­rants close within five years. COVID-19 has made things even more try­ing for the sec­tor. The blood­bath we’re wit­ness­ing will only con­tinue.

To the dis­ap­point­ment of many cus­tomers, across Canada some great culi­nary in­sti­tu­tions have made their clo­sures very pub­lic in re­cent weeks. Ev­ery­thing from cher­ished lo­cal restau­rants to those run by im­mi­grant fam­i­lies who have cre­ated jobs and ex­panded Cana­dian cui­sine are clos­ing their doors af­ter years of busi­ness.

It’s heart­break­ing. And it’s quite un­for­tu­nate that pol­icy-mak­ers aren’t tak­ing no­tice of the losses in a sec­tor that plays an im­por­tant role in our econ­omy. Dr. Syl­vain Charlebois is se­nior di­rec­tor of the agri-food an­a­lyt­ics lab and a pro­fes­sor in food dis­tri­bu­tion and pol­icy at Dal­housie Univer­sity. Troy Me­dia

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