How we can help our restaurants

How to help struggling Ottawa restos

Before he became mayor, in September of 2021 Mark Sutcliffe wrote in the Ottawa Citizen about the sea change that seemed to be coming for the restaurant industry in the city.

“The restaurants we patronized before the pandemic may look quite different in a few years. I have confidence that Ottawa’s brilliant restaurateurs are up to the task of adapting and creating new ways of doing business, including creating a better workplace. But, as always, it won’t be an easy job.”

At the time, he largely saddled business owners with the responsibility for their struggles with his focus on a dwindling talent pool. ”The sector has been plagued by incidents of sexism, sexual harassment, low wages and unfair labour practices. You wouldn’t blame a friend for pivoting to another career when the pandemic created the opportunity,” he wrote.

Certainly there have been long-standing issues in the hospitality industry but post-pandemic (in the view of businesses), where do we go now? 

Restaurateurs have applied strategies such as wage increases to help retain staff and those of us who dine out know full well that we pay much more for the privilege than we did a few years ago. 

Vlado Ristovski of the ByWard’s Bistro Ristoro offered this observation and said a recent survey about the precarity of restaurants — more than half may be on the brink of collapse — were reliable. If it came to pass, “it will negatively affect the employment rate in this sector of the economy as well as the availability and diversity of the restaurant services.”

Ristovski doesn’t see this as purely a problem of increased food and labour costs. “I would also take into consideration the lack of flexibility of the federal government for postponement of the repayment of CEBA loans as well as its agreement to further support the remote work of the government employees.”

It’s this last point that is troubling for so many restaurants, particularly those located downtown. Rents of course, are never based on the number of hours a business is in use and with so many establishments still closed over lunch hour they count on increased dinner trade to keep the lights on. Yet businesses are not seeing those numbers. With so many federal workers still working remotely for most of the week the lunch trade is essentially kaput.

Dave Longbottom owner of Flora Hall Brewing concurs. “Coming on the heels of the numerous government imposed closures and lockdowns, the rapidly rising input costs are extremely difficult to absorb. All of the restaurateurs I speak with cite that the hangover from work at home/stay at home policies continues to impact on customer patterns.

“Very few establishments can support a lunch business, and the after work periods are significantly down across the city as well,” he said.

I left Ottawa decades ago and while the restaurant scene is so much better than it was, in that time our city has not seen the modernization and growth of cities like Toronto or Montreal.  There are many reasons for this of course but one is a lack of pedestrian only zones. Throughout Europe these pedestrian thoroughfares are commonplace and endlessly in use. The Sparks Street Mall in comparison is an abject failure. 

There are solutions out there, as one business owner, who preferred not to be named, told me. “Pedestrian friendly neighborhoods with real attractions can revive an area and make it viable for good restaurants,” he said.

“The city can make this happen with any amount of vision, and I think an upgraded national capital is something the feds should be paying for,” he said. “Wellington should be like Washington's National Mall. Instead it’s a highway to Quebec. Sparks St. is an embarrassment and noticeably bereft of any vision or plan.” 

“What are we doing?” he wondered.

That frustration with all levels of government is echoed throughout the sector so what can be done and is anyone with authority listening to these experienced voices? 

As a kid I remember the excitement we felt when north Bank Street would announce its annual sidewalk sale. The street would be closed to traffic and people came from all over to freely roam and shop. 

Adam Vettorel of North and Navy said this is the direction the city should be looking to go. “Creating pedestrian friendly neighborhoods is a great way to improve traffic to restaurants. Look how busy Elgin Street is since that upgrade,” he said. “Surely the Glebe and north Bank Street should be taking notes.”

Flora Hall’s Longbottom said continued work-from-home policies are a real detriment to restaurants and more. “Governments should fully understand the negative consequences for cities, in continuing with these policies. It impacts directly on the viability of public transit systems, and on the many businesses that simply will not survive without foot traffic. Losing these establishments will have a profound and negative impact on cities and towns across the country.”

Now that he’s mayor, Sutcliffe may also want to exert a little influence and insist on keeping the patio tax at the current rate of $7.54 per square metre. The idea at the moment is to double them to $15.24 per square metre beginning in 2024, bringing it back to pre-pandemic levels as CBC reported. Such a move, when restaurants have not recovered from the pandemic, will only contribute to more failures.

Now what can we, the consumers, do to support the businesses we cherish? If it’s in our budgets, perhaps adding an extra night out to the calendar is a start. 

If you’ve become comfortable ordering online then consider not using any of the many delivery services that take deep percentages from struggling restaurants. You might also pick up the phone and book a table directly with the restaurant rather than using an online reservation service. These services charge several dollars per booking and they may just get passed on to you in another way.

Finally, write to your local, municipal and federal representatives in government. In the interests of culture, good eating and vibrant and healthy communities, it is down to us all to ensure that our hospitality sector flourishes. 

Encourage these politicians to routinely engage with these job and tourism creators. Ask them to get out there and not just work from home.

Last week, Ralf looked at the news that more than half of Ottawa’s restaurants may be on the edge of failure. Catch up here on part one of this series on the state of the local industry.