foodservice operators

Strength, resilience & creativity: How foodservice operators have thrived in the pandemic

RestoBiz spoke to numerous foodservice operators about the bold steps they have taken to keep moving forward throughout COVID-19.

By Tom Nightingale

Faced with mounting pressure, closures, razor-thin margins, and a range of health and business concerns, foodservice operators have had to tread where they have never stepped before during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Battening down the hatches and tightening their operations has, in many cases, not been enough. As the various industry-wide emerging trends like the exponential rise of takeout have shown, adaptability has been the only way to survive the pandemic, let alone continue success as a local operation.

It’s been a year characterized all too often by tales of woe, as thousands upon thousands of establishments have been forced to close their doors. But some have made it through, and a common theme has been the will and proactivity to change the way they operate when needed.

RestoBiz spoke to six operators across the province about the tough choices they have had to make since March 2020.

“We have some customers for whom dine-in was their whole life,” says Barry Reid, VP of Sales and Marketing for Flanagan Foodservice, which works alongside over 8,000 restaurateurs and foodservice operators across Ontario, including those in this story. “Now, they’ve had to pivot massively. Figuring out takeout and third-party delivery, getting their voice out there on social media, reassessing menu items, adding patios…  For many foodservice operators, the pandemic has moved a lot of stuff ahead five or 10 years.”

So it has proven.

Taking on takeout

The unprecedented necessity to offer off-premises dining has been a defining feature of the pandemic’s impact on foodservice throughout Canada and beyond. Many of the restaurateurs we spoke to have either taken on takeout for the first time or significantly ramped up that side of their operations.

One common theme has been shifting menu offerings.

Ryan Lloyd-Craig, co-owner and COO of Ignite Group of Brands Inc, which runs Crowsfoot Smokehaus in Conestogo, notes the restaurant decided to limit its dine-in menu to things that would travel well for takeout.

“We’re not offering nachos, tacos – things that if you opened 20 minutes later would be a poor representation of our restaurant,” says Lloyd-Craig. “We were willing to take the risk of reducing our menu. People aren’t coming to our restaurant for fries; they’re coming for amazing smoked meat, brisket, fried chicken.”

That reduced-menu model was also followed, at least initially, by Michelle and Rick Arsenault, co-owners of the family-run Bluebird Café & Grill in Orangeville. “We reopened with a very small menu, 10 or 12 items, to test the waters,” say the Arsenaults. “But we quickly realized people wanted more of our extensive menu, so we brought back about 75 per cent of it almost right away.”

Bluebird already had a small takeout kitchen on-site but many customers weren’t aware of its existence. “One of the biggest lemonades out of all these lemons has been the increased exposure for our takeout kitchen… We’re adding online ordering, which we’ve never done before, and we’re hoping to open up to a whole new demographic. We’re not going to reduce our takeout staff; we’ll have more people who can go the extra mile to maintain a better customer experience. People rave about the interactions they have with our takeout team.”

Certainly, the climate of the pandemic has necessitated redistribution of resources. Like many foodservice operators, Adam Winkler, owner at Winks Eatery in London, had to add a new shift entirely for takeout. “We went from thinking that we were going to do a couple of hundred dollars a day to doing a couple of thousand,” Winkler says.

Gaining traction and maximizing engagement on social media has been crucial. “We’re always putting ourselves out there. It doesn’t have to be a deal, it can just be getting our face out there, get customers remembering you. We promote deals, feature sauces: the little things go a long way.

foodservice operators
Winks Eatery: “We’re always putting ourselves out there”

Making that change to off-premises dining was a massive learning curve, something of a trial-and-error undertaking.

“We had to learn on the fly,” says Shawn Gilbert, chef at Guelph’s Atmosphere Café + Etc. “Our first takeout menu was perhaps a bit lacking, but over time and practice we really improved it and the operation became a bit smoother. Some of our close friends were quite impressed by how fast we reinvented ourselves…”

Gilbert also stresses the increased importance of social media with foot traffic virtually non-existent in comparison to pre-pandemic levels. “Now, it’s almost a full-time job in itself on social media. It’s become a daily operational procedure.”

Diversifying offerings

For many establishments, the move to takeout has just been one strand of a sea change in day-to-day operations. Pivoting to takeout is a necessary move, but it’s an incredibly saturated market even at local level. Offering something different has been important.

“Our true bread and butter during the pandemic has been heat-and-serve kits where we prepare the meal and the customer cooks it at home,” says Gilbert. “By the time customers get most dishes on takeout, they’re lower quality. Now, we do the hard work for you – you just follow our detailed instructions so you can have something of a dining experience at home.”

In some cases, those changes have not only been in menu offerings, but on the larger business model.

foodservice operators
Crowsfoot’s general store:”I can frankly say it saved our butt”

Crowsfoot already had plans to open a general store to accompany its Smokehaus to supply the local community. However, during the pandemic, it quickly pivoted to stock many of its popular restaurant items and products from local providers in the store.

“We wanted to grow into stocking our products in the store but very quickly decided to do it immediately,” says Lloyd-Craig. “We went heavy on packaged meats, deli meats, frozen foods. Even for surrounding communities driving through, it’s an opportunity to stop and shop local, and I can frankly say that the general store saved our butt.”

It’s not just been restaurants affected. For catering companies, the challenges have been different but no less intense. With the events market essentially drying up almost overnight due to gathering restrictions, they’ve had to think on their feet.

Jenn Esch Leblond, who runs mixed catering/dine-in operation Dinner Is Served by Dianne’s in North Bay, explains the bulk of her business pre-pandemic was catering for community events, weddings, and so forth.

During COVID-19, she has been fielding and coordinating product requests amid huge demand from the business’ Facebook community. The business moved to a new location and set it up like a market, with fridges, freezers, and shelving for groceries and products to offer the local community. Flanagan’s set them up with a big tractor-trailer – “essentially a giant walk-in freezer,” says Leblond – and, while they still do their meals-to-go, selling produce has become their new normal.

“We’ve really enjoyed the shift,” she adds. “We will get back to catering eventually when events are a possibility again, but this has allowed us to continue working. The new building is phenomenal. It’s been a whirlwind of a year. Having the trailer is invaluable, it’s a game-changer for us.”

Cambridge-based Little Mushroom Catering has also overhauled itself.

“Pre-COVID-19, we were doing catering from Collingwood down to Simcoe, Turkey Point area, all the way from Hamilton and Burlington to London,” says owner Stephanie Soulis.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Cambridge-based business “basically became a grocery and prepared-meal delivery and curbside service” selling everything from toilet paper and yeast to lasagnas, soups, stews, and chilis. By this point, says Soulis, the 11-year-old company is essentially “like four different start-ups” – there is also now a wholesale business and a kitchen rental business in addition to the to-go meals and grocery, and an online store.

“We didn’t have the kitchen rental side or any e-commerce at all before COVID-19,” Soulis explains. “There are all these smaller pieces now, things we didn’t ever think we’d be doing.” Some of these facets may not continue in the long run but, for now, diversifying has been vital and profitable.

Community connection

A constant among every operator we spoke to for this story was a grateful and unequivocal appreciation for the support they received from their respective communities. As the pandemic has gone on, there has been significant visibility of a desire to support small and local businesses.

That has certainly been felt across Ontario.

“Before COVID-19, we had a really loyal customer base,” says Esch Leblond. “Throughout our shift, they really supported us on social media and helped us through that transition with promoting us, etc. The support from the North Bay community and surrounding areas has been overwhelming at times, seeing how much they support local businesses. We’ve always had that mentality in our community and it’s key to any business.”

foodservice operators
The truck supplied to Dinner Is Served by Flanagan’s: “Essentially a giant walk-in freezer”

There have been other supports, of course. The government has played its part – Soulis notes the wage subsidy “has saved us through all of this” – and our interviewees also expressed huge gratitude for the work Flanagan’s do as partners and suppliers.

“Flanagan’s take good care of us and that’s been crucial because we didn’t know how bad it was going to be,” says Winkler. “We’ve worked with other companies who were less personal, but Flanagan’s treat us like a human being. It’s more like working with a friend.”

Community support, though, has been the most essential pillar of survival and success in 2020-21. For many businesses, you live and die by the connection you build with your community, and the importance of repaying that support is far from lost on businesses.

“We want to make sure there’s an element of giving back in everything we do; that’s part of who we are,” emphasizes Soulis. “Right from the beginning, we’ve had an option for people to add a meal for a frontline worker. Companies have asked to sponsor enough meals for ER nurses or a particular night shift. We also write messages on cookies to say ‘thank you’ to frontline workers.”

The Arsenaults at Bluebird started writing on regulars’ takeout bags in the first lockdown. “We were telling them we miss them, and it got to the point where we felt bad not writing a message even to new customers. Now, every single bag or box that leaves here has a handwritten message from staff. It’s a really heartfelt thing for us. We bring the bags to cars; that way, we can see the guests. We miss them. Those conversations can mean a lot.”

Bluebird, like others, also holds virtual events like paint nights and charity events to stay better connected. “We know how difficult it is to stay positive and entertained, and we want to be part of the solution for people. We do what we do because we love it. You have to go above and beyond to create those experiences and build and maintain those relationships.”

foodservice operators
Bluebird staff write messages for customers on every takeout or pickup bag

Building for a better tomorrow

Ultimately, the end goal of pleasing people must never go out of focus for foodservice operators, and that’s particularly true in a time like COVID-19. “You just want everybody to leave happy,” concludes Esch Leblond.

If, as over the last 13 months, that means displaying more flexibility, more daring, more confidence in changing the way your business operates, so be it.

“For all of us, reinventing ourselves has been key,” says Gilbert. “That’s true even at the best of times. You can’t stay still: you need to be experimenting, following trends, looking to the future. It’s easy to rest on your laurels by accident and COVID-19 has been a big reminder.”

It’s been perhaps an unprecedently challenging time for foodservice operators, with myriad lessons to learn from the pandemic and moving forward. But, with support from your community and your supplier, respect for and connection with your customer base, and the confidence to be bold in the face of adversity, there can be light in times of darkness.

RestoBiz thanks foodservice operators Atmosphere Café, Bluebird Café & Grill, Crowsfoot Smokehaus, Dinner is Served by Dianne’s, Little Mushroom Catering, and Wink’s Eatery for telling their tales, and Flanagan’s for its partnership.

Atmosphere Café: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Bluebird Café & Grill: Website | Facebook | Instagram

Crowsfoot Smokehaus: Website | Facebook | Instagram

Dinner is Served by Dianne’s: Facebook

Little Mushroom Catering: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Wink’s Eatery: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram