A virus isn’t killing restaurants, Government is.
The foodservice industry has been my beat for years now. But I hadn’t seen anything resembling an extinction-level event for Canadian restaurants…until Covid hit. I don’t blame the virus. We were long overdue for a pandemic—this is what world health officials tell us.
Why, then, were our governments so ill-prepared to support sectors of industry, and more specifically, food and hospitality? Why was there no multi-tiered governmental infrastructure planned for the eventuality of a global pandemic involving a highly contagious pathogen?
Food and hospitality businesses across the country form a major economic engine for their respective municipalities, regions, provinces/territories, and the country. They’re also among Canada’s largest employers. Despite this, since March of this year when the scale of the pandemic became clear, all levels of governments have fumbled their way through the logistics of instituting social and physical distancing. Bad decisions have been made—arbitrarily, based on assumption, misinterpretation, or political pressure—consequently destroying confidence in the safety of dining in Canadian restaurants.
No transparent data was provided, yet it was invoked to explain on-again-off-again closures of restaurants across the country. When some data did become more available, we saw that, in fact, restaurants were not responsible for the spread of Covid-19 in our communities. But it’s too late for that realization. Restaurants have been vilified, they have been the scapegoats for politicians, and whatever governments are doing or have done is not nearly enough.
In the meantime, restaurant owners literally can’t feed their own families—this very situation was described to Mohamad Fakih last week by one of the many colleagues who’ve reached out to him for a shoulder. Fakih is the well-known restaurateur and operator behind Paramount Fine Foods. He isn’t worried about his business; he stresses this point. He is, however, beside himself worrying for his industry, friends, and the country. Irreversible damage has been done to restaurants. It’s impossible for an independent restaurant, in this climate awash with misinformation and confusion, to re-open and hope to rebuild their business, pay off the debt of the last year, or even subsist.
The industry is broken. This is an extinction-level event for Canadian restaurateurs.
Governments must now step up to support, protect, and save food businesses. Canadian restaurants need help. Not tomorrow. Now.
Mohamad Fakih was an immigrant. He came to Canada from Beirut, Lebanon. He built his business from nothing and today epitomizes success in Canadian foodservice. He’s been through adversity and is a reluctant expert for these troubled times. According to Fakih, the problem starts with the definition of leadership. “Get the people who know best involved,” he explains. People who know better than politicians. He says it’s imperative to form a restaurant oversight group. “They [media and government] have been calling us, we are on the receiving end of complaints or just being an opinion,” all of which he believes is ineffective. Instead, he thinks we need an active taskforce made up of experts representing real restaurateurs to inform policy and protocols.
Referring to the recent pandemic shutdowns and the new colour-coding system which replaces the notion of phases, Fakih is incredulous: “For 28 days the government shut down restaurants, affecting businesses and livelihoods, and this didn’t help anyone—cases have continued to go up in record numbers. For us, we have a location at Yonge and Steeles, and another down the road. One where sit-down was allowed, and the other not. This is arbitrary, it makes no sense because people can choose which one they go to, no matter where they live.”
Fakih says as an owner he has not been presented with any data demonstrating restaurants are a source of an increase in cases, or at the epicentre of outbreaks. All these shutdowns do is demonstrate a lack of communication, transparency, and mismanagement of pandemic data. The fiscal ramifications are existentially threatening to restaurants. There’s little to no real financial help from Government. In early October the province of Ontario announced $300 million to help offset fixed costs, including property taxes, hydro, and natural gas bills. A month later, says Fakih, “we haven’t seen any of it.”
Restaurants have led the charge in terms of implementing staff safety training, contact tracing, as well as purchasing and installing safety equipment. These investments, made to protect guests and to keep the lights on, have left owners more financially vulnerable (while governments continue to throw restaurants under the bus when case numbers rise).
Fakih’s phone is constantly ringing. “Got a call from another owner who saw me advocating. His landlord is pushing him, he is not sleeping. This is causing anxiety, causing [him] to lose money, what’s left?” Fakih is speaking up, not because his business is suffering per se, but because of the suffering in the industry as a whole. He’s angry about the lack of reason and logic, the lack of supporting data, and misguided, ineffective policy decisions that are killing restaurants (and all the other sectors that rely on foodservice).
Platitudes are insulting and hurtful
According to Fakih: “We need honesty…not emotional words from the premier like ‘my friends,’ ‘little guys we’ll look after you,’ ‘always support you.’ That’s great, but the action needs to speak louder than words. What does it even mean to arbitrarily set a maximum of say 50 people inside a restaurant? Does this apply to all sizes of restaurants?”
Yes, restaurateurs want to open their businesses but not at the expense of Canadians’ safety. “We followed their leadership, we listened, we thought they knew what they were doing. Then the data came out, restaurants are not the reason for transmission. Why do businesses have to close, leaving staff at home? Leaders are not guiding us the right way; these are not data-based decisions,” emphasizes Fakih.
To his point, politicians don’t seem to understand the difference between bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. Why are these establishments lumped into one group in the data? Fakih says that were he in power, he would look at individual businesses and ensure they were properly categorized. “They’re causing us to spend money, treating us as though restaurants are the only ones to blames. In fact, we’re the only ones that have traceability, because we’re the only ones tracing guests. We have systems in place and then we’re blamed for it. The irony…If I was the City of Toronto, I would do traceability at every indoor facility. Count people in retail,” Fakih goes on to explain there should be a number of people per square footage, per category of business. He wants to support all businesses; he is happy to see others managing. But restaurants are taking a hit like no other business.
“We have been in business for years and years, we pay taxes, we employ people…we truly need those political leaders to stand by us and follow real data…Make us part of the solution,” offers Fakih. “What will happen? People cannot pay October rent, can’t pay November rent, maybe not even until December. Landlords are kicking people out. They could evict people. We need an eviction ban.” Fakih wants the left hand and right hand to work together. People are losing their livelihoods…and in some cases their homes, too.
Fakih has experienced poverty, living in a basement as a newly arrived immigrant, he struggled to get on his feet for a long time. He says he’ll always advocate for others. “They can’t expect a restaurant owner to be able to dish out three months’ rent cash flow, wages expenses when you shut their doors…This fight, is not about restaurants, it is about people. I hope to God all Canadians will always put people first,” he sighs.
Restaurants aren’t looking for handouts, they’re looking for fairness, justice, and safety
“These businesses, these families, they have lasted for the last eight months. Let’s help them out, let’s save them,” Fakih refers again to the economical fallout—moving through families of restaurant owners, employees and their families, supply chain businesses and vendors—from what Canadian restaurants have been subjected to.
“We’re not asking for a handout. We’re sending a clear message. If you want to shut us down, subsidize us. The government has to get involved,” Fakih says it’s very important to understand that “We are not against the government. But I see business leaders I looked up to when I was learning the business, they are now on their knees selling toilet paper just to stay alive,” he finishes.
Restaurants are at the centre of our joy—our celebrations, our cultures, our neighbourhoods, our towns, and cities. Says Fakih, “It breaks my heart when someone calls crying on the phone like a colleague recently did from Oakville. Should she have to decide between shutting down her store or feeding her children? This is Canada. This is a place of hope. Let’s act and save businesses.”
Consumers, how can you help?
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(Source: Restaurants Canada)
Restaurateurs: Get help now using resources from Restaurants Canada HERE.
Featured Image: The ‘Danse Macabre’ and Canadian foodservice. By Illustration student, Emily Fisher.