Just as the hospitality industry was regaining its footing after the pandemic, restaurants were hit with skyrocketing food and utility costs.
The co-owners of Chartier, an award-winning local restaurant in Beaumont, say in some ways, this storm is harder to weather than COVID.
“I think so. In some ways it is,” Sylvia Cheverie said.
“I feel like it’s different reasons,” Darren Cheverie added. “There was kind of that pandemic exhaustion that everyone had coming out of it and you were forced to keep sprinting.
“We use the analogy that life support was pulled off a little early when the subsidies ended. This ripple effect of the pandemic is months and years behind and we’re just kind of feeling it now. We could use some help now, but where does that come from?”
Over the span of just one or two years, Chartier has seen the cost of some basic ingredients, like potatoes, increase by as much as 215 per cent.
“Canola oil jumped from $18 a jib to as high as $88, with shortages as well,” Darren said. “Dairy has gone up now 25 per cent — 20 per cent of that being in the last year.”
They say bacon has gone up by 56 per cent, flour by more than 50 per cent in a very short period of time and takeout containers cost 60 per cent more.
“The price of goods has been going up steadily,” Sylvia said. “We’ve been slowly having to adjust our pricing to make sure we’re covering the costs. It’s now, though, getting to a point where the pricing we are charging is disproportionate to the value that we’re able to deliver.”
To cover the rising costs and keep their doors open, the Chartier team decided to implement what it’s calling “crisis prices” on its menu effective Aug. 3.
“As we pay more, we all inherently feel like we should be getting more, and the expectations are higher. But the challenge is that things that used to cost us $18 are costing us up to $80 and we’re getting no more yield from it, it’s not a better product because it’s $80,” Sylvia said.
“We just felt it was important to identify the reasons why pricing is going up and also make it clear that we hope this is temporary.”
In a post online, Chartier explained that the pricing doesn’t reflect what it wants to charge — or thinks is fair to charge — it’s just what the market demands in order for the restaurant to keep its doors open and team working. The crisis pricing will be reevaluated monthly.
“Once some of the factors — like inflation, effects of COVID, labour shortage, supply chain issues, war — once some of things kind of taper down, we’re hoping that this isn’t a permanent thing,” Sylvia explained.
“And it’s definitely not fueled by greed — not by us, not by the farmers that we work with. Everybody’s input costs are going up so high that everyone is forced to adjust to stay in business.”
Another reason that this particular challenge is different from the one presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, Darren says, is that no one seems to be talking openly about it.
“We’re hearing that prices are going up in the grocery stores but it’s not really translating to what the effect is on restaurants,” Sylvia said.
“Even within our own colleagues, I think everybody is putting their heads down and trying to get through it. We’re not collectively talking about the effect it’s having on our business, our team and our own mental health.”
Their message to guests? Be kind, be patient and be thoughtful about where you spend your money.
“Restaurants are doing their absolute best and restaurants are trying to put their best foot forward,” Sylvia said. “Things won’t look the same as they used to. Prices won’t look the same. Portions may not look the same.
“Right now 46 per cent of Canadian restaurants aren’t sure they’re going to be open by the fall, so… be gentle and kind to your local restauranteur.”
Every dollar spent in a local business counts, she added.
“The decision of where you spend your hard-earned money is going to ultimately decide who makes it past the fall,” Sylvia said. “We need the help and we need the guests more than ever.”
Several well-known and well-loved Edmonton restaurants have recently closed their doors. Some have pointed to insurmountable economic challenges, in part, brought on by the ripple effects of the pandemic, rising food and utility costs and increasing rent.
After 18 years in Edmonton’s core, Blue Plate Diner closed permanently this summer. The homey, family-run restaurant moved from 104 Street to 124 Street just before the pandemic.
“It was a lot of different factors,” explained co-owner Rima Devitt. “I think we’ve been really creative in the past years… during tough times, figuring out a way to make payroll, a way to make rent, working out a way to get busy, we’ve always been really good at that.
“It just seems like it’s getting harder and harder to do that. Everything costs more. The relocation was devastating for us and then COVID happened.”
A big contributing factor was being priced out of being able to stay downtown, Devitt said.
Developers putting in high-rise apartments and condos approached Blue Plate Diner about leasing their ground-level space, but it wasn’t affordable, she said.
“They were charging ‘market value’ and we just couldn’t see moving across the street into a brand new space for what they were calling market value… We already knew we couldn’t afford that, and those spaces are still empty… three years later.”
Devitt pointed out that profit margins are already so slim in the industry.
“When it’s not any more appealing to go downtown than it is to go to Queen Mary Park, or whatever, there’s no motivation to pay $14,000 for rent when the industry is so unstable.”
A few blocks away, Canteen is also closing, but for a different reason. Co-owners Frank Olson and Andrea McDannold-Olson, who got their start at Red Ox Inn, will be closing the doors to Canteen in September after 10 years.
“We have some good news and some not-so-good news,” Andrea told Global News on Wednesday. “The good news is Frank and I are really excited to start planning and working on our new restaurant — our grand finale, we’re calling it — in Crestwood. That will be opening in the beginning of 2023.
“On the other side of that, it’s a hard goodbye to Canteen. We’ve been here 10 years. We’ve been super supported by so many incredible people, people that followed us at Red Ox, the community here has been incredible. But our 10-year lease has come up and we’ve decided it’s time to try something else.”
Frank said they were looking at a possible 40-per-cent rent increase if they renewed their current lease.
“That’s not insurmountable, but there were other things, like the LRT going through right in this neighbourhood — Blue Plate and us are very close to that.
“But the major reason ended up being a bit of a surprise… The space came up that we have always wanted to do something in.
“A lot of this other stuff made it a lot easier for us to pick up and go somewhere else,” he explained.
The duo will take lessons they learned during the pandemic and apply them to this new venture.
“We’re going to be doing more of an all-day thing where we start at 7 in the morning and go until 10 or 11 at night,” Frank said. “Coffee service and takeout and lunch and dinner. The pandemic has sort of… you can’t be quite as selective in your hours, we don’t think. You have to be open a little bit more.”
“We’re going to take everything we’ve learned and everything we maybe could have or should have tried elsewhere and we’re going to run with it,” Andrea added.
They admit with the way the industry is right now, they may be taking a bit of a leap.
“I would say the climate is pretty up in the air,” Frank said. “The last couple of years have been really hard to make any plans… inflation and supply issues.. the economy, who knows what’s going to happen?
“The overall climate in the restaurant industry is that we’re not back at the place we were, but it’s moving in that direction. So, I think for a lot of people, there’s some optimism about what’s going to be happening and that’s why we’re doing one more thing.”
The support, experience and reputation their 26 years at Red Ox Inn provided Andrea and Frank gave them the foundation and confidence for one last project.
“Red Ox Inn was our first love,” Andrea said. “It was absolutely incredible. The community of Strathearn was unbelievable. We just had a great time. That was really our footing to get going on Canteen and gave us the confidence to open a second place.
“I think we must be hopeful,” she added.
“We feel really good about where we’re going from here. To open a brand-new place and sign a 10-year lease, I think that means that we have a lot of confidence in what’s to come.”