How much more can Ottawa restaurants take?

The many ways our restaurants are suffering.

As with sugar, politics is in everything. We may not like it but we can control how much we consume.

This controlling of politics in our diets however, is a luxury not afforded to restaurant owners as they are confronted with it daily as a matter of mere existence.

According to Restaurant Canada’s Food Service Facts 2023 report, the industry is still in a labour crisis. They also cite that customers have not returned to pre-pandemic dining levels. Easy enough to understand as food costs continue to rise and inevitably get passed on to the consumer. 

That same report showed that while consumer spending is up 10 percent (again, rising food costs), 50 percent of restaurants are facing closure. In Ottawa that number is even higher at 56 percent, according to CTV.

I had the chance to communicate with a few local business owners to get their take on the challenges they face.

Recently examples of restaurant closures (Brasseur du Temps and the British Pub – both in Gatineau) have been cited as cause for concern. Undoubtedly both these institutions will be missed but I have also reported on numerous new openings of restaurants in the past year.

To North and Navy’s Adam Vettorel, the report’s findings weren’t a surprise. “I would point out that half of all restaurants being on the verge of failure is nothing new in our industry. This is the hardest game in town and it always will be,” he said.

The issues facing the industry are complex, he said. “The chefs I speak to generally complain about the ever dwindling talent pool for cooks. Collectively our industry has never offered better pay, benefits, and share of tips and yet the attrition rate is still high,” he said. 

“Everyone seems to have a theory as to why this is but I am not convinced it's an easy phenomenon to pin down. I think a multitude of factors are colliding at once and they were all accelerated by the pandemic.”

According to Vettorel, rising costs are an ongoing problem. “Food and labour are rising significantly faster than at any other time in my 20 years in the industry,” he said.

But the rising costs don’t stop there. He also pointed to insurance, garbage removal, linen prices, and the cost of energy all make things more difficult.

He was also quick to point out there are other costs that the average consumer doesn’t think about. Reservation services such as OpenTable and Resy all take a cut of several dollars a reservation which for a busy restaurant can mean more than $1,000 per month.

Then there are the food delivery companies that take service fees as much as 35 percent. You may have noticed that often there is a higher online menu price than the price on the printed in-restaurant menu. Naturally restaurants needed to build in their losses and pass them on to you. 

In a further audacious move DoorDash is now warning customers that if they don’t tip, their orders may be delayed. It’s understandable that, during the pandemic, we became so habituated to using these apps that these companies are now defining new terms by which we abide.

The financial pressures on independent restaurant owners is enormous. They don’t have the economies of scale or the infrastructure of larger chains such as Milestones or Joey’s.

Next week:More restaurateurs weigh in and what lawmakers, and even you, can do to help.