A steaming bowl of chowder with a fluffy, fresh-baked roll, a salty breeze and an ocean view are hallmarks of east-coast Canadian dining. But a sea change is in the air, as high-end destination dining-rooms and independent eateries benefit from an upsurge in small-scale producers growing, netting, fermenting and foraging fresh local fare.
“The whole food side has exploded,” says Gordon Stewart, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia. “There’s more local food and that’s going to continue.”
“We’re seeing top-quality rest-aurants throughout the Atlantic,” says Luc Erjavec, vice-president, Atlantic Canada for Restaurants Canada. “Fifteen years ago, it was meat and potatoes; now we have some outstanding chefs doing creative things with local products.”
A handful of chains (Moxie’s, Five Guys, East Side Mario’s and The Keg) is expanding in the east, but Atlantic Canadians like to support their own. “Nova Scotia has the highest proportion of privately owned restaurants,” Stewart notes. Although they’re challenged by a shortage of qualified kitchen staff and a seasonal economy, east-coast independents are meeting and exceeding margins.
Ablaze in Prince Edward Island
“P.E.I. is one of the top performers in Canada,” says Erjavec, who credits strong immigration and tourism as drivers of an improved economy. “Government has reduced business taxes and it’s one of a very few provinces that gives wholesale discounts on alcohol.”
Now in its fifth year, chef Michael Smith’s FireWorks Restaurant at The Inn at Bay Fortune thrives in this market. “It’s communal dining and all the food is cooked over live fire,” says service director Anna Collins. “It’s a full, immersive, educational farm tour, with food stations throughout the property, long tables and a breaking-of-bread ceremony.”
Guests are greeted individually and allergies carefully noted. “Everything is brought in local. We have foragers and lots of local farmers who show up at the back door with delightful bounty,” says Collins. A nearby orchard provides maple syrup and oysters are harvested daily from within sight of the dining room.
FireWorks charges set prices for its “feasts” and pays staff more than double the minimum wage. “It’s fantastic for our team, because they’re not fighting over tables. It’s a guaranteed income,” she says. “And every day we’re learning about [items] from the farm; that motivates people more than money.”
New Brunswick’s Tidal Energy
Although the overall provincial economy has not been booming, New Brunswick’s restaurant scene is stable, thanks in part to Moncton’s robust performance.
Chad Steeves is the owner of Moncton’s Tide & Boar Gastropub, which flourishes on its offerings of music, craft beer and local oysters. Open for eight years, it employs about 95 people. “We’re nestled between the Bay of Fundy and the Northumberland Strait; the seafood from both these places is unique and different. We have quick access to halibut from Nova Scotia and P.E.I. oysters,” says Steeves. “We try hard to be a good place to get great seafood.”
Instagram is helpful in engaging customers, he adds. “We did something with what’s called ‘poptails,’ a spiked Popsicle,” he says. “It blew up around our community; people were taking photos of it and sharing that they got it here.”
His biggest worry is the shortage of cooks. “It’s so hard to find trained employees who know how to put food on the plate. We’ve been bringing in people from outside the country, because quite frankly, we can’t find anybody [in Canada]. For a whole month we had to run with a smaller menu just to make it less time-consuming in the kitchen,” Steeves says. “We just started with the [Temporary Foreign Worker] program this year and it’s a godsend.”
Newfoundland: Rock Steady
“The population is declining and aging, the workforce is shrinking and, with the downturn in oil, government is tightening its belt, so it’s been tough sledding in Newfoundland for the last couple of years,” says Erjavec.
Nonetheless, with continuing oil-related business travel, “they have a steady business market; it shows up in St. John’s, if not necessarily some other places,” says Stewart. And beyond the pub strip of downtown George Street lie unique venues such as Mallard Cottage, opened by chef Todd Perrin in 2013 in a lovingly renovated 220-year-old historical building. He’s also just launched a small deli, bakery and café across town called WaterWest Kitchen and Meats.
“We focus on locally sourced ingredients. Being in Newfoundland, sometimes that’s a bit of a challenge. The cost of food is quite high and, ironically, getting fresh seafood is not that easy,” Perrin says. However, “people come to Newfoundland looking for an authentic experience. Combining big-city sensibility with a local flair and a bit of a Newfoundland lilt, that’s really the strength of what we do here.”
“You can cover your costs and offer an amazing experience and you can do that anywhere; what you’re providing is authenticity and sense-of-place dining,” says Jonathan Gushue, formerly of Ontario’s Langdon Hall and currently executive chef at the remote, romantic Fogo Island Inn. With a wealth of neighbourhood foragers, fishers and hunters, “it’s certainly a chef’s dream to be out here with all of these people that we can use as resources,” he says.
Nova Scotia’s Maritime Pride
In Nova Scotia, “Halifax is pushing the economy of the rest of the province,” Erjavec says. It’s seeing an increase in chains, diverse cuisines and quirky independents such as the 15-year-old The Wooden Monkey, which was ahead of the trend for field-to-table fare. “There’s lots of great restaurants opening up; people are getting more conscious of great food, so there’s lots of competition,” says co-owner and manager Matt Gass.
Other pressures include the kitchen-labour shortage, immigration red tape, credit and debit fees and the loss of a hiring credit for small businesses. “Little things do add up and the government isn’t really helping the small business [owner],” says VP of Operations and co-owner Christine Bower.
However, The Wooden Monkey’s two locations (Halifax and Dartmouth) attract a dedicated clientele with a menu that caters to special diets, offering favourites such as its lentil burger and “vegan, gluten-free and decadent” silken chocolate pie.
In bucolic Margaree on Cape Breton Island, the Dancing Goat Café and Bakery was the first venue to offer breakfast, lunch and specialty coffees. “We’re bursting at the seams right now; we need to expand, but I’m hesitant, because we’re faced with the challenge of finding people to work,” says owner Merv Tingley. “I’m starting to see different concepts open up. People want fresh ingredients; we don’t even have a deep fryer,” he says. “We provided a service that wasn’t being tapped into. I have a strong local market that supports me from all over Cape Breton.”
Written by Sarah B. Hood