Central Canada is Banking on Health- and Eco-Conscious Fare

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From Kenora to Kamouraska, diners in central Canada are indulging their thirst for new experiences by eating out frequently. While restaurant margins are thin, Statistics Canada confirms total foodservice receipts continue to rise in both Quebec and Ontario and restaurant successes abound in both provinces.

“We’re almost fully booked to the end of October. We have thousands of people coming to Quebec and all those people want to eat local,” says Guy Lombard, general manager of the boutique hotel l’Auberge Saint-Antoine in Quebec City.

His restaurant, Chez Muffy (formerly Panache), grows much of its own produce. The farm-to-table menu of sustainable and artisanal foods appeals to the younger, health- and environment-conscious demographic. Chez Muffy even has a collaborative arrangement to forage wild herbs and mushrooms in Forêt Montmorency, a “teaching forest.”

The simple smoked meat heaped on mustard-slathered rye is still a winner for Montreal’s iconic Schwartz’s Deli. “We’re doing fantastic. I’ve been here 37 years and every year seems to be better,” says general manager Frank Silva. In Montreal, “you’ve got to stay small and cost-conscious. A lot of restaurants are realizing that and are opening smaller places.”

Le Germain Hotels operates restaurants in Montreal, Toronto, Quebec City, Ottawa and the scenic Charlevoix region, among other locations; this year it’s launching a lounge in Saskatoon, a restaurant/coffee shop in St. John’s, Nfld. and a lobby lounge and bar in the renovated Le Germain Montreal.

Because co-president Christiane Germain has celiac disease, the boutique chain had a head start in catering to gluten-free and other special diets, says national food-and-beverage director Bruno Durand, who emphasizes the importance of social awareness. “We were one of the first to remove plastic straws from our hotels and we’re trying to remove plastic glasses. We have smaller menus to respond to what is available in the market,” he says.

Todd Morgan is Operations partner at the three-year-old Maple Leaf Tavern, a refurbished vintage tavern in Toronto’s food-focused Leslieville area, and the 11-year-old PORT, a waterfront fixture in nearby Pickering.

“Guests are looking for an experience-based product. That’s where we’ve had success with both of our products,” he says. “We sell 60 per cent in food sales at both of our properties.” Drinks, decor and music, he says, all contribute to “the tone and the culture. We’re trying to create neighbourhood destinations — that ‘third space’.”

Food-and-beverage training for front- and back-of-house staff is part of the mix, as is catering to special dietary requests. At Maple Leaf Tavern, “we have people who come from across the city because they have confidence in [chef Jesse Vallins] to be able to accommodate their gluten or celiac allergy,” says Morgan.

Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality (O&B) operates numerous Toronto staples, such as Canoe, Auberge du Pommier and Bannock, as well as Montreal’s Bar George, Saskatoon’s Shift and Calgary’s Sub Rosa and The Guild. It’s recently opened Maison Selby, a unique French bistro in a 136-year-old Toronto mansion.

“Millennials love going out and they want experiential things,” says president and CEO Andrew Oliver. “When you walk into Maison Selby or Bar George, you’re really entering another place. You could never build something like that again.”

O&B is “super keen” on developing its plant-based menu items. “Last year we did our first Canoe vegetarian-based tasting menu; it did well,” he says.

“The customer is now more sophisticated than ever, from ordering to flavour profiles to expectations,” says Kevin Kalaydjian, owner of Windsor, Ont. fixture Capri Pizza. “We’re introducing a little bit of heat now in some of the toppings. We have a bakery that provides us with gluten-free pie shells.”

Capri Pizza has a longstanding tradition of using local ingredients, which has recently become more of a selling point with customers who want to know what’s in their food. Kalaydjian marvels at the scope of today’s competition: “before it would be the staples: Chinese, pizza, Italian, hamburgers. Now the variety is incredible.”

Angela Caputo is similarly enthusiastic about the culinary scene in Northern Ontario. “We’re seeing people in the North really branch out,” she says. Four years ago, Caputo opened The Breakfast Pig, a breakfast-and-lunch spot in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. that is Feast-On certified for using local ingredients.

“We’re experiencing a lot of growth. Chain restaurants don’t last very long here; people here like to see the face of the person they’re supporting,” she says. “I just released my third menu and each time we push the envelope a bit more. Now you don’t have to travel to Toronto and go to some high-priced place to try something cool; you can go to different places in your hometown.”

Overall, “Quebec and Ontario have performed really well over the past four or five years,” says Chris Elliott, a senior economist with Restaurants Canada. Year-over-year sales growth is six per cent in Quebec and 6.5 per cent in Ontario over the past four years — among the largest growth rates in the country.

However, says Elliott, “once you factor out inflation and unit expansion, it’s been an entirely different story.” After these calculations, Quebec shows only 1.5-per-cent growth from 2017 to 2018, while Ontario is actually down by 2.2 per cent — a drop directly attributable to a 6.4-per-cent increase in menu prices following a minimum-wage hike from $11.40 to $14 per hour ($9.90 to $12.20 for liquor servers) between 2017 and 2018.

Restaurants in Quebec and Ontario are also struggling to find and keep qualified staff. “Labour is our number-1 cost and for us to have it go up 20 to 25 per cent was a massive shock to the system,” says Oliver. One solution has been fine-tuning schedules. “We’re also investing in technology to make our employees more efficient; for example, tablet ordering to increase the speed at which people can get things going.”

At Capri Pizza, the largest impact came not with the wage increase but with an increase in eligibility for holiday pay introduced at the same time. “We had to cut some hours,” says Kalaydjian.

Quebec’s 2019 increase to $12.50 an hour ($10.05 for tipped employees) was less steep, but still significant. “We’re dealing with a lack of candidates almost more than the minimum wage,” says Durand. “We’re fighting for cooks; we’re fighting, even, for dishwashers. I want people to be paid fairly. More and more we see [operators] costing menus, costing drinks and trying to find ways to be more disciplined in order to be able to have a well-staffed kitchen.”

Among other factors, “technology is the number-1 influence,” says Robert Carter, industry advisor, Foodservice Canada for the NPD Group. He cites third-party apps to connect with customers and tools to make operations more efficient. Back-of-house is now “measuring performance, scheduling staff, ordering inventory,” he says.

The startup, ResQ, applies QR stickers to equipment that staff can scan to connect to repair services. MeazureUp monitors kitchen operations — including food temperatures. “Even the POS systems are becoming much more advanced,” Carter says, mentioning Givex, which manages loyalty programs and the iPad POS system TouchBistro.

In Ontario and Quebec, prosperity beckons for operators who hit the sweet spot between efficiency, quality, cost and the sense of connection for every diner.

Written by Sarah B. Hood

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