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Following a barrage of pandemic lockdowns and closures, restaurants in Canada are still not out of the woods, despite the fact mask mandates have long since been lifted and life has seemingly returned to ‘normal’.

 

According to a recent report from Restaurants Canada, over the past year restaurant closures have outpaced openings by 43% and inflation-adjusted food service sales will be around 11% below 2019 levels by the end of this year. The report also indicates traffic in full-service outlets is down nine per cent, and approximately down five per cent for quick service ones. However, according to the report sales could still surpass the $100 billion mark, which is encouraging.

 

But getting to that level could be difficult say restaurant owners, taking into consideration ongoing labour shortages and supply chain issues.

 

“If I were to sum up state of the industry in one word, it would be ‘tired’, especially for independently owned and operated restaurants like my location,” says David Kroeker, owner of Zoup! on Hespeler Road in Cambridge. “It’s been a struggle and it’s kind of come in waves as well.”

 

Matt Rolleman, co-owner of Thirteen at the corner of Water and Main streets in Galt, agrees and wonders what the impact COVID-19 will have in the next few months, especially for the Christmas bookings he already has in place.

 

“In the back of my mind and for a lot of business owners in general is we’re hoping there won’t be another wave like before,” says Matt, noting he’s optimistic vaccines and boosters will lessen the severity of any potential impact. “But it might be a wave of staffing issues with staff getting sick with COVID. I think we’re still in this really precarious situation and are worried about COVID-19, even though people are treating things like it’s all back to normal.”

 

Staffing levels an issue

 

When it comes to current staffing levels, restaurants nationwide are finding that retaining staff continues to be a major hurdle. Restaurants Canada estimates the sector has had between 150,000 and 170,000 vacant positions for some time and currently employs 271,000 fewer people prior to when the pandemic hit in 2019. This has resulted in many restaurants to alter the way they operate, perhaps opening fewer days a week or closing earlier.

 

“Staffing retention is a huge thing right now that all businesses, and especially restaurants, have to look at,” says Matt. “But restaurants are pretty much drawing from a very similar pool of people and there’s all these restaurants vying for the limited staff that’s available.”

 

David agrees and says even the recent minimum wage hike to $15.50 won’t really help the situation.

 

“At the end of the day we’re not helping our employees because everyone is jacking up their prices and everything is costing more,” he says. “It’s a vicious circle.”

 

Supply chain problems

 

Like most restaurant operators, David says supply chain issues also remain a big concern. As prices on the menu increase with inflation, the number of food choices has decreased in some restaurants resulting in them offering only a few dishes on any given day to provide more predictability for the back-of-house staff.

 

“The supply chain has essentially fallen apart in my opinion,” says David. “I spend at least five to 10 hours a week just looking for alternative products so we can keep a full menu.”

 

He says customers service has remained his No. 1 priority and says it can be difficult having to explain to patrons about the challenges he faces if something they order is not available.

 

“I’m so grateful for our client base because 99% of our customers are absolutely fantastic and they get it,” says David, adding the solution needs to come from all levels of government, especially when it comes to custom issues at the border.

 

“At our distribution centre there is so much backlog right now they have to make reservations for trucks to show up to receive goods,” he says, noting the Bank of Canada’s decision to increase the prime lending rate to combat rising inflation and the Province of Ontario’s minimum wage increase are working against businesses.

“It’s different levels of government not working together, and they are actually impacting the long-term situation in Ontario,” says David.

 

Impacted by loans

 

Like many restaurant operators, both he and Matt utilized the Canada Emergency Business Account during COVID-19 and while that may have assisted during the cycle of lockdowns and re-openings, they worry about the overall financial impact.

 

“We took on some stuff that we never would have done before,” says Matt, adding business was ‘rolling’ before the pandemic. “I had never planned on taking those extra loans. There’s a lot of businesses that have taken on loans so hopefully when winter hits we don’t see a big recession because it’s going to be hard on a lot of businesses.”

 

He says having Main Street closed to traffic during the summer was great for his outdoor patio and is optimistic that come next year people will continue to look at staying closer home due to higher costs.

 

However, Matt expects that people’s dining habits will change.

 

“Restaurants are a luxury. I’m anticipating that people who dine out once a week may switch to once a month, and those who come once a month might switch to once every two or three months,” he says, adding there is little that restaurant operators can do when it comes to combatting supply chain issues and rising interest rates. “It’s a little daunting for sure.”

 

  •  With files from Troy Media
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The forecast is looking good for the summer tourism season in Waterloo Region.

 

After two years of uncertainties, restrictions and pivoting due to the pandemic, the hospitality and tourism sector is poised for a significant comeback.

 

“Everything is coming back this summer,” says Michele Saran, CEO of Explore Waterloo Region. “There is so much pent-up demand, and it seems like the concerns about COVID-19 are receding and people are feeling a lot more confident to get out and about.”

 

Compared to last year at this time, she says tourism operators in Waterloo Region, including hotels and attractions, have already seen a higher demand in the first quarter of this year.

 

“It’s going incredibly well so far, but there are still labour shortages and supply chain issues,” says Michele. “I know some of our hotels can’t run at full capacity just yet because of these shortages which is a shame because we’ve been hit so hard the last couple of years.”

 

To offset some costs surrounding the implementation of health and safety protocols to keep patrons and employees safe, Explore Waterloo Region and RTO 4 (Regional Tourism Organization 4 Inc.) distributed nearly $600,000 to support 125 attractions, hotels, and other operators in 2020 and 2021 through the Tourism Adaption and Recovery Program (TARP).

 

“Our industry was the first hit, hardest hit and the last to recover is what we say, and we still have those impediments in a way with these labour concerns,” says Michele.

 

She says this summer Explore Waterloo Region is taking a ‘divide and conquer’ approach when it comes its marketing tactics.

 

“As we are easing out of COVID-19 we’re looking to our local operators and BIAs to market our region to local residents,” says Michele. “We as Explore Waterloo Region are expanding a little further out with our marketing focus and trying to encourage people from the GTA to get out of the city and come to a place where it might be a little less urban, but with all the amenities of the big city; close to nature where they can get out and enjoy walking and bike trails and still have incredible culinary and cultural experiences, just with a little less of the crowds.”

 

Michele says the many festivals and attractions Waterloo Region has to offer this summer will be a big draw, such as the Cambridge Scottish Festival and the Canada Day celebrations which features a parade and returns to Riverside Park with fireworks.

 

“People are feeling a bit safer in being groups but still outside,” she says, noting this should be a good summer for domestic tourism due to long lineups at major airports which has been blamed on staff shortages and COVID-19 screening.  “There is still a little bit of concern about travelling internationally so I think this is the summer we really have to take advantage of the opportunity to get people in and around Waterloo Region to come and experience everything we have to offer.”

 

For a detailed look at what’s available, visit Explore Waterloo Region.

 

A few summer highlights in Cambridge:

  • Kin Carnival (May 26)
  • Cambridge Tour De Grand (June 12)
  • Cambridge Celebration of the Arts (June 17 – Civic Square)
  • Host Springs Music Festival (June 25 – Central Park)
  • Cambridge Celebrates Canada Day (July 1 - Riverside Park)
  • Thursday Night Live Performances (July 7, 14, 21 and 28 - Mill Race Park Amphitheatre)
  • Hespeler Village Music Festival (July 9 – Forbes Park)
  • Cambridge Scottish Festival (July 15-16 – Churchill Park)
  • Forbes Park Movie Night (Aug. 18 – Forbes Park)

 

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Nothing represents summer more than a barbecue.

 

The smell of food cooking on the grill and the sounds of the outdoors are a feast for the senses, especially on a warm and sunny afternoon.

 

But for many, good food is not the only reason barbecues are so popular.

“A barbecue is a meal that everyone can enjoy,” says Steve Varnasidis, General Manager of Q BBQ Public House in Cambridge, who has spent 25 years cooking on just about every surface possible. “It brings people together.”

 

James Empringham, Chef De Cuisine at Cambridge Hotel & Conference Centre, agrees.

 

“I think for myself and a lot of other people, the biggest attraction to BBQ, like any other food, is the social interaction,” he says, adding ‘breaking bread’ or this case beef, pork, seafood or chicken, is important. “It’s that aspect of standing around a BBQ, smelling that delicious food while in the company of friends and family on a hot summer day.”

 

The Farm Boy Product Development Chefs (Maria Garza, Liam Fulcher and John Cadieux) also agree and say not ‘heating up’ the kitchen is another big attraction to heading outdoors.

 

“It’s an easy clean up and the ability to cook many different foods at the same time,” says Farm Boy’s Maria Garza.

 

However, when it comes to barbecuing, there can be so many questions  surrounding not only what to put on the grill, but how to cook it?

 

So, we asked these local barbecue experts a few questions to help you host the best barbecue possible this summer:

 

1. Does the heat source matter?

* According to the Farm Boy chefs, the answer is yes since – gas vs charcoal vs wood – all give a slightly different taste profile. “For the novice, gas would be the easiest and most convenient way to grill, whereas charcoal or wood require a bit more know-how so you can regulate temperatures correctly,” says Liam Fulcher.

* For Todd Diamond, Director of Food & Beverages at Bingemans, using the proper heat source is imperative. “Ultimately, there are a number of different ways to approach a BBQ and a variety of different preparations for the meal,” he says. “The important part is matching them together to produce the best results.”

* When it comes to producing the best results, Steve at Q BBQ Public House says wood is a great heat source. “I like to mix fruit wood, like apple or cherry, and then mix it with maple or oak which are more readily available around here.”

* James and his colleague Nick Ruthardt from Cambridge Hotel & Conference Centre say flavour is everything and the right heat source can help. “Charcoal briquettes are one of the most popular heat sources and they can provide a wonderful grilled flavour. Then as you get more into BBQ and adventurous, you can start to also play around with smoking with woodchips and the different flavours they can add to the cooking process.”

 

2. What is the best thing to cook on a barbecue?

* Pork is great thing to cook on the barbecue according to Todd at Bingemans. “But I really believe the very best thing to cook is whatever you are working with on any given day,” he says. “It’s about the amazing variety of incredible meals that you can prepare, just don’t be afraid to try something new.”

* James and Nick Ruthardt also believe the possibilities are endless, including various meats, seafood, and all sorts of vegetables. “Once you dive down into it, there really isn’t much you can’t do on a BBQ or with a smoker,” says James. “Yes, some of these things take a little bit more practice than others to really get them down to perfection, but BBQ really does have a little bit of something for everyone.”

* Farm Boy Flattened chicken receives top marks from both the Farm Boy chefs and cooks up fast and crispy, while remaining moist.

* Steve at Q BBQ Public House also agrees that flattened chicken is great, providing it’s well marinated and basted on the grill.

 

3. What can be the most difficult thing to cook on a barbecue?

* For the Farm Boy chefs, they say fish and seafood can be a difficult because it can stick to the grates and can easily be overcooked. “Same applies to seafood, because it cooks so fast, you have to be careful not to overcook,” says John Cadieux.

* For Steve at Q BBQ Public House, he says cooking the perfect steak can often prove difficult. “If you’re not an expert barbecue or griller, it can be really challenging,” he says.

* For James and Nick, they insist brisket is the hardest thing on a BBQ to get done properly. “It’s hard cut of meat to get tender because it’s a very fatty piece of meat and takes a very long time for the collagens to break down so that it is super tender,” says James. “When cooking brisket, it is definitely a long game and can’t be rushed.”

* Todd at Bingeman  jokes that dessert is the toughest thing to barbecue.

 

4. What is the easiest thing a novice can cook on the barbecue?

* When it comes to simplicity, Steve at Q BBQ Public House says a really tasty homemade burger is a great thing for a novice to try. “Grill up some portobello mushrooms and put them on top, or some bacon or pineapple,” he suggests. “It’s delicious and everybody appreciates a good homemade burger.”

* The Farm Boy chefs agree and say the Farm Boy gourmet burgers are quick and easy. As well, they recommend the Farm Boy mesquite chicken wings and all beef frankfurters.

* James and Nick recommend trying some pulled pork, if a nice bone in pork shoulder slice of meat can be used. “The key to pulled pork is low and slow. One the pork shoulder is on the BBQ, all that has to be done is wait,” says James. “Fun fact, when people refer to a ‘pork butt’, they are actually referring to the widest part of the shoulder.”

* When it comes to something simple, Bingemans’ Todd Diamond also says pork chops are easy to whip up.

 

5. What are the most common mistakes you can make barbecuing?

* The Farm Boy chefs say not planning ahead is a big problem and that lighting the charcoal or wood far too late doesn’t allow the barbecue to property heat up. As well, not cleaning and greasing the grates is another mistake.

* James and Nick agree. “Starting with a grill that isn’t up to temperature will result in either burned food, undercooked food or food that just won’t come unstuck from the grill,” says James. “Another mistake I see often is people opening the lid way too much. It’s important to keep the lid shut.”

* Using a fatty slice of meat is another mistake says Steve at Q BBQ Public House, when it comes to barbecuing. He says fatty meat can lead to a great deal of smoke and flame ups.

* For Todd at Bingemans, he says using lighter fluid is a big no-no and must be avoided.  “Don’t use too much heat,” he says.

 

A few tips from the experts:

  • Don’t use too much heat
  • Be creative with veggies
  • Know your equipment inside and out
  • Don’t move the food around
  • ‘Rest’ all the meat
  • Cook food in order of how long things take to cook
  • Don’t forget the wine/beer

 

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