Many restaurants have closed in response to COVID-19. (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)

Many restaurants have closed in response to COVID-19. (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)

‘It’s been very, very tough’: B.C. chef echoes industry concerns of possible COVID re-closure

Food service sales crashed in April, dropping to $2.4 billion for the entire industry

By Marc Fawcett-Atkinson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer

Paul Natrall misses balmy, busy, bustling evenings serving bannock at summer festivals.

They’ve been the norm for the Squamish Nation chef and food truck owner who specializes in Indigenous fusion cuisine. Since he opened the business in 2017, Natrall — better known as “Mr. Bannock” — has been a popular fixture at festivals and other gatherings across B.C.’s Lower Mainland. Not this year.

“Pre-COVID, in the summertime, we were at huge events,” he said. “We’d make good (money that) would last us the whole year. Sadly, that’s not the case this year.”

British Columbia banned gatherings of more than 50 people when the pandemic started in March and most festivals and other events — the heart of Natrall’s business — were cancelled this year. And he wasn’t alone: Lockdowns and physical-distancing measures have had a dramatic toll on Canada’s food service industry as a whole.

Food service sales crashed in April, dropping to $2.4 billion for the entire industry — the lowest sales reported in more than 20 years, according to a July survey by Restaurants Canada.

Restaurants, bars, and caterers like Natrall (food trucks are technically caterers) were hit particularly hard, reporting between a 75 per cent to 90 per cent drop that month.

Unsurprisingly, this crash was reflected in dramatic unemployment, with the industry reporting 615,000 laid-off workers in March and April — roughly a fifth of all layoffs in the country. And another 202,000 people remained employed, but didn’t work any hours.

The situation has improved slightly over the summer, with lockdowns easing and patio service making it easier for many establishments to operate, but in July, the industry remained more than 300,000 jobs short of where it was before the pandemic started.

“It’s been very, very tough,” Mark von Schellwitz, Restaurants Canada’s vice-president for Western Canada, said.

“Not only where we were, but where we are (now) is very difficult.”

In a recent survey, more than 90 per cent of the organization’s members said they expected their autumn sales to be significantly lower compared to last year — and that it will take several years for them to recover, even if no further restrictions put in place, he said.

The industry already operates on a razor-thin margin, von Schellwitz explained, and the pandemic has forced most establishments to take on significant debt — even with federal and provincial supports.

These supports have proved vital, and maintaining them will be essential to helping the industry as a whole recover within a year or two. If they end before there is a vaccine or pandemic restrictions are lifted, it could take up to three years for the industry to find itself on stable financial ground, he said.

“Without ongoing and new assistance, many in the food service industry will not make it,” warns an August submissionfrom Restaurants Canada to the federal standing committee on industry, science, and technology.

In the meantime, everyone in the industry is doing what they can to stay afloat. Including Natrall.

“We’ve taken odd jobs here and there, we’re offering takeout and pick-up from North Vancouver, and I’ve been doing lots of digital media and social media,” he said.

These moves haven’t brought him anywhere close to his sales volumes of previous years.

“We signed up for DoorDash and Uber Eats, but it hasn’t been busy,” he said.

Von Schellwitz also pointed out that the service fees these delivery companies charge restaurants mean that, often, they barely break even.

And as a caterer, Natrall can only sell at events or from his main location on one of the Squamish Nation’s reserves in North Vancouver.

That’s tough for business: Relatively few people pass through the community, he said, especially because of the pandemic.

The nation was on full lockdown until mid-May, and several recently announced cases in the community have Natrallworried — for his community, other Indigenous businesses, food and tourism businesses, and his food truck.

First Nations in B.C. have been extremely proactive in regard to the pandemic, with local lockdowns and other measures preventing a potentially devastating surge of cases in most communities. That has had a significant impact on tourism operators — including some chefs, Natrall said.

About 91 per cent of Indigenous Tourism BC’s stakeholders reported they had to close or operate at a limited capacity because of the pandemic, while 74 per cent of these businesses needed to lay off employees.

It’s a grim situation that’s filled with uncertainty.

“I just really hope everything doesn’t start getting shut down again. That would be bad, not just for Mr. Bannock, but every single food and beverage industry,” Natrall said.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Extra paramedics are in Terrace to deal with COVID-19 patients. (File photo)
Extra paramedics sent to Terrace

Area is experiencing high number of COVID cases

Security has been stepped up at both Mills Memorial Hospital in Terrace, pictured here, and at Kitimat General Hospital in Kitimat. (File photo)
Stillbirth reaction leads to more hospital security

Staff, physicians facing threats and harassment

The Majagaleehl Gali Aks Elementary School in Hazelton is being shut down for a week by the Gitanmaax Band Council following a confirmation of a COVID-19 exposure there on Feb. 26. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Hazelton school COVID-19 closure extended one week

With spring break on horizon, Majagaleehl Gali Aks Elementary will be closed to end of March

There were 31 new COVID-19 cases in the Terrace local health area during the week of Feb. 21 to Feb. 27, 2021. (BC Centre for Disease Control)
Northwest B.C. remains a COVID-19 hot spot

There were 31 new cases reported in the Terrace local health area between Feb. 21 and Feb. 27

Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president and Grand Chief Stweart Phillip speaking at a rally with chiefs from around B.C. outside of the Coastal GasLink pipeline route in 2019. The UBCIC said in an open letter to Terrace city council that it was “heartbroken” to hear about the situation. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs ‘heartbroken’ by McCallum-Miller resignation

Terrace’s first Indigenous councillor resigned Feb. 22, alleging systemic racism

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C. on the COVID-19 situation. (B.C. government)
Dr. Bonnie Henry predicts a ‘post-pandemic world’ for B.C. this summer

‘Extending this second dose provides very high real-world protection to more people, sooner’

The Netflix logo on an iPhone. B.C. delayed imposing sales tax on digital services and sweetened carbonated beverages as part of its response to COVID-19. Those taxes take effect April 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Rourke
B.C. applies 7% sales tax on streaming, vaping, sweet drinks April 1

Measures from 2020 budget were delayed due to COVID-19

Chief Don Tom of the Tsartlip First Nation was outraged after Green MLA Adam Olsen revealed on social media that the community had been experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak – a fact the First Nation had chosen to keep private to avoid racist backlash as experienced by the Cowichan Tribes when an outbreak was declared there in January. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. First Nation ‘outraged’ after Green MLA reveals COVID-19 outbreak

Tsartlip First Nation chief shares concerns about racist backlash, MLA apologizes

A lawyer wears a face mask and gloves to curb the spread of COVID-19 while waiting to enter B.C. Supreme Court, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. British Columbia’s highest court has sided with the land owner in a dispute over public access to public land. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. high court finds in favour of large landowner in fight over access to pair of lakes

The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club launched legal action after the cattle company blocked road and trail access

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa Friday, March 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau holds firm on premiers’ health-care funding demands, COVID-19 aid comes first

Premiers argue that the current amount doesn’t keep pace with yearly cost increases of about five per cent

Free Reformed Church is seen as people attend service, in Chilliwack, B.C., on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Lawyers for the British Columbia government and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms are back in B.C. Supreme Court today, squaring off over the legality of COVID-19 rules that prohibit in-person religious services. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. top doctor has power to restrict access to a place during health hazard: lawyer

Under B.C.’s Public Health Act, Jacqueline Hughes says, Henry can restrict or prevent entry to a place

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India in partnership with Verity Pharma at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
B.C. dentists and bus drivers want newly-approved Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine

BC Dental Association says dentists and their teams cannot treat patients remotely

Surrey Pretrial in Newton. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. transgender inmate to get human rights hearing after being held in mostly male jail

B.C. Human Rights Tribunal member Amber Prince on March 3 dismissed the pretrial’s application to have Makayla Sandve’s complaint dismissed

President of the BC Teacher’s Federation (BCTF) Teri Mooring is calling for teachers to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by summer. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Why it’s ‘urgent’ B.C. teachers get vaccinated from COVID-19 before summer

President Teri Mooring says not enough is being done to prevent virus transmission in schools

Most Read