COVID prompts Vancouver restaurant industry to tackle its bigger, more challenging systemic problems

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Last March 16, within hours of learning that a global pandemic would force them to close their doors, the team at Say Mercy had swung into action.

“By midday that day we were looking around the room knowing we would have to lay most of the staff off,” says Andrew Jameson, founder of the restaurant’s parent company, Collective Hospitality. “We thought it would be appropriate to offer them staff meals every day. And that maybe this is something we could do for the collective good of the industry.”

Every day for the next three months, his team prepared containers of nutritious food that people could buy or donate at a nominal cost. The Staff Meal program kept people employed and fed, and was just one of several initiatives launched at a time of desperate need.

Nearly a year later, that need isn’t quite as urgent. Now the industry is tackling its bigger, more challenging systemic problems.

“COVID sped up all the problems in the industry and fast-forwarded them 10 years,” says Brandon Grossutti, owner of PiDGin restaurant and founder of the FromTo delivery service. “Now we have to deal with them, and if we don’t deal with them, the only option is to give up and close.”

Cracks in the foundation

“There’s a huge problem in the foundation of our industry that we’ve just allowed to get worse,” says Abdallah (Dallah) El Chami, co-owner of Superbaba and co-founder of the Vancouver Food and Beverage Community Relief Fund.

The problems that face the industry include big ones, like its razor-thin margins and sweeping social issues of harassment, discrimination, and the inequality that sees more and more unhoused people camping in restaurant doorways.

But they also include seemingly small injustices, such as the boss who posts the work schedule just days before it begins, or treats tips as part of a server’s salary (they’re not), or pays a cook for eight hours, but expects them to work hours of unpaid overtime every day. These practices are not only unfair and sometimes illegal, they also prevent employees from having a life outside of work, which, over time, can lead to serious mental health issues.

“People don’t want to rock the boat because they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs,” says El Chami, who recently spoke about these issues as part of Tacofino’s Shift Change initiative. “COVID finally gave people a chance to stop and see both sides of the street. We need to open doors that allow people a path to better workplace culture.”

Building better workplace culture is also on Shelley McArthur Everett’s mind.

Last March, the principal of SMC Communications launched Breaking Bread, a central hub for restaurants that offer takeout, delivery, meal kits and the like.