2021 is finally here and I think we’re all realizing that the latest season of Drag Race isn’t going to save us. These next two months are always notoriously scary for restaurants and bars, but this winter is almost guaranteed to be a full-on horror show.
Let me take you back to a happier time, to a taco on a beach in British Columbia.
Tacofino was born behind a Tofino surf shop in 2009, the lovechild of two visionary surfers. The following year I visited that beautiful coastal town, and I remember looking out over the ocean with one of their particularly perfect tacos in hand and feeling like a god. It was a truly unforgettable moment; like when Johnny Utah, slack-jawed, first laid eyes on Bodhi in Point Break. Swayze’s Bodhi was the stuff of legend. Much like this taco! Why couldn’t all tacos be this good?
I’m talking about the taco to illustrate a larger point. At that time I was still fully immersed in restaurant culture, but I no longer worked in restaurants. There were things I hated about the business, and even though I questioned them, I didn’t really expect anything to ever change. I stood on that beach thrilled at my new freedom. I was out, but my blood was still pure Kool-Aid.
Little did I know that change would come to the restaurant industry. That Me Too and BLM would smash holes in the gastronomic temples that had always seemed immovable, that the Kool-Aid in my body would turn back into real human blood. It is possible the transubstantiation began with that unbelievable taco. Stay with me.
Tacofino has grown from that surf shop to eight locations across BC. In 2019 they hosted an industry event called Shift Change, which at its heart is about fostering empathy within hospitality. It was a big hit, so they planned to do it again. But, as we all know, event calendars got wiped out for 2020. Tacofino just wouldn’t quit though; they wanted to do this event so bad they scheduled not one, but four new dates, moved it online, and slashed ticket prices to zero dollars so everyone could take part.
We have seen change in the years since my taco epiphany on that west coast beach, but we are nowhere near where we should be. Anyway, who in their right minds would be worrying about empathy (!) while our entire industry teeters on the brink? Those surfers from Tofino, that’s who. They are absolutely devoted to changing our industry for the better. I’m telling you, that taco was magic – as if it were crafted by Bodhi himself.
I talked to Taylor Chobotiuk, Tacofino’s head of HR, about why, during the most brutal year the restaurant business has ever faced, this fleet of BC taco shops was so determined to keep their little event alive.
First off, you grew up in landlocked Calgary, how did you come to be hooked up with a bunch of taco-slinging surfers?
I was born and raised in Calgary and went to the University of Lethbridge. I’ve been in Vancouver for about eight years. I’m a white cisgender male, and for me, I always had a conflict with who I was as an individual and what society expected. In Alberta you fell into certain categories—you were either gay or straight, there wasn’t a spectrum, you were just expected to fit. Those expectations being imposed on me never felt natural.
Alberta is dear to my heart, I spent the lion’s share of my life there, but Vancouver, with its diversity and its culture and food, there is a bit more acceptance. It was the first place I’ve ever felt really welcomed. It felt like home.
Tell me about Shift Change, what is it exactly?
It’s a space for industry professionals and community leaders to come together to share ideas and learn from each other. In 2019 we focused on mental health, addiction and gender. Close to two hundred people showed up. During the pandemic, we really wanted to keep Shift Change going so we looked for an opportunity to do it differently. It’s very important for us to connect with community leaders, people we see doing really great things, and then we get out of the way. Tacofino offers the space and supports the marketing.
What is something you’ve learned from these sessions?
My takeaway from the last Shift Change was about recognizing that if we’re splitting people up into a binary model then we’re excluding a lot of people. Recognizing the policies you have in place as a business, as it relates to uniforms, or pronouns—that can really exclude people.
You have to review everything you do as a human being and as a business. Not making assumptions about people, but asking them. As employers, I don’t think we should be afraid of that. Opening up a dialogue shows that you’re genuinely concerned about inclusion. Why do we hold onto old social norms like male and female? Why should it matter?
I’m thankful to Vancouver for that too, the celebration of LGBT and two-spirit. That in itself was one of the first things that made me fall in love with this city.
That all sounds wonderful, but why keep it going in 2020, and now into 2021? Shouldn’t you guys be focused on saving your restaurants from impending ruin?
Originally the content that became Shift Change was just going to be leadership training for Tacofino, but then we saw that we could open it up for the whole industry and create change for other people. The past year has been a struggle, and it’s really difficult to stay afloat. The people in this industry are going through a tough time, so we made tickets free and moved online. We donate $1250 per session to the speaker’s cause of choice.
These systemic issues, we’re aware of them and we want to disrupt them. We want to create a different industry altogether.
You work in this business; can you tell me why Shift Change is important to you personally?
I’ve spent a lot of my working life in non-profit. I’ve worked in immigrant services and focused on diversity and inclusion. In 2019, the focus for the session was on mental health. I’m diagnosed with mood disorders; I have depression and anxiety. I also have ADHD—those are all parts of me and things that I’ve dealt with in my life. Now, if you’re raised as what is generalized as a male—one of the traits you are raised with is not being able to talk about these things. You have to be stoic and silent. We can see the ramifications of that if we look at the data behind substance dependence and suicide. It took me a long time to do things that are healthy instead of destructive. In our industry mental health and substance dependence is a big thing. Even suicide; we have to destigmatize it and talk about it so people know that they’re not alone.
How do you address a situation in a restaurant where someone tells you they’re suicidal? As leaders how do you deal with that? Leaders are taught operations for business, so we’re all at a loss when it comes to those situations.
We all want to be better to support people in those situations and Shift Change created a place for us to openly talk about all of these things.
The current Shift Change theme is ‘Diversity, Inclusion and Equity,’ tell me a bit about that.
Covid really highlighted the inequity in the world. We recognize that significant barriers exist and we look at those and learn how to be a part of dismantling them. We’re working towards a world where opportunities are available to everyone. This is such a beautiful industry made up of people who are artistic and passionate and caring. We have an opportunity to improve and continue to be better.
Why is it important to connect with our industry peers right now? Isn’t it better to isolate and just cry ourselves to sleep every night?
The better we understand each other the better we’re able to empathize with each other. I wholeheartedly believe that the world improves when people connect—when we don’t generalize and we see each other as individuals.
Any divide that exists between people comes from a lack of exposure, a lack of curiosity, it’s us versus them. I hope we just continue to learn about each other and have genuine curiosity, then we can be more inclusive and create equity.
People have really been feeling that they are in this together, and are trying to better understand each other—I’m hopeful that will continue beyond the pandemic and that we’ll have a more compassionate world where we’re all looking out for each other.
Upcoming Shift Change sessions will feature Lisa Beecroft on employing adults with cognitive diversity, on January 12th. And on Feb. 9th Heat Laliberte will talk about visibility for LGBT and two-spirit people in the back of house. Tickets available here.
Featured Image: Taylor Chobotiuk, Gino Di Domenico, Jason Sussman, Puneet Kochar. Photo by Amy Ho.