By Rosanna Caira, Editor & Publisher, Foodservice and Hospitality magazine
In the past week, while Canadians having been dealing with the fall-out of the COVID-19 pandemic, several foodservice-industry stakeholders have been working tirelessly to form coalitions in an effort to galvanize the industry and send a strong and united message to government. Last week, a new group called One Table came into existence by introducing a social-media awareness program, with the goal to share the stories of countless independent restaurant operators who have been impacted by the lingering COVID-19 epidemic, and the business closures it’s spurred.
According to Frank Hennessey, president and CEO of Recipe Unlimited and the person behind the initiative, the idea for the social-media campaign surfaced when he when talking to an independent-restaurateur friend who lives in Richmond, Virginia. “This [crisis] obviously impacts restaurants around the world,” said Hennessey during a Foodservice and Hospitality podcast taped earlier this week. “They had done a video, and as I started talking to different independent owners, it became clear they really don’t have a voice.”
As president and CEO of one of the country’s largest foodservice companies, which includes legacy brands such as Swiss Chalet, the Keg, St. Hubert, The Bier Markt, Harvey’s and others, Hennessey decided to use some of the resources at his disposal, such as a “great digital and video team” to help create a series of videos and a campaign to give voice to how this pandemic was impacting independent restaurants.
“We have all these resources, and all these things we’re doing for franchisees, so why can’t we try to provide a voice for independent restaurants?” said Hennessey, adding, “candidly, I believe this is an industry that’s only as good and as strong as the independents that make up the fabric and richness of the industry.”
He reached out to Alex Reichichi, president of Crave It Restaurant Group, which operates Via Cibo restaurant and Burger’s Priest burger chain. “Alex knows a lot of people like Anita (Mancuso, owner of Sotto Voce) and so I asked for his help. We wanted to start giving voice to the independent restaurateurs ─ not so much in a legislative way, that’s where Restaurants Canada, can play a part and are.”
For Hennessey, the goal was to convey the real emotion of what the industry is about. “It’s about sharing those stories to give us a better voice,” said Hennessey. To date, he says the industry has lost “somewhere over 700,000 employees” to layoffs. “We’ve laid off between 25,000 and 30,000 people,” he admitted. “This impacts not just the industry, but the Canadian economy.”
“The thing about the One-Table initiative is it really captures the voice of every type of operator,” said Rechichi. “The fear is the restaurant landscape is going to change, and we don’t know if it’s going to go back to what it was before. There’s a trickle-down effect that we’re starting to see. The relationship between our employees ─ our dishwashers, our suppliers, landlords, the banks, our customers. Everyone is sitting at one table, and we’re all impacted by what’s happening and the positioning of the One-Table initiative and the fact that it brought the voices together so quickly,” said the operator, explaining the initiative came together within 48 hours. “Everyone is suffering the same fate; it’s a great initiative, it captures the voice of everyone and it started to spread right across the country, from province to province.”
Hennessey stressed this campaign is not meant to “replace other industry efforts in going to politicians but, in Recipe’s case, we’re sharing through all our brands’ social channels and suppliers to get involved.” The videos capture the stories of operators, bartenders, servers and others in the industry, all linking back to One Table. “As much voice as we can give, there’s lots of other industries out there that are better capitalized than the vast majority in the restaurant space, so we want our voice certainly heard,” said Hennessey.
For Anita Mancuso, owner of Toronto’s Sotto Voce restaurant, getting involved with One Table was a way to speak up for the smaller restaurant operators out there. “As a small business, you feel like you don’t have a voice. For 20 years, we’ve been under the radar. We were happy to do our thing and our customers were happy… but this was one of those times I felt I had to step out of the shadows and say something. And the guys were amazing to give me that spot to say what was happening.”
Mancuso’s 20-year-old restaurant operation has been closed during the pandemic, as it wasn’t feasible for her to pivot to takeout and delivery. The restaurateur believes it’s important to qualify the small-business moniker and to define what constitutes a small business. As an employer of 10, “when you try to explain what we are…we’re literally a micro-business; we’re smaller than small,” she said. “You’re like the ant trying to run around, and [One Table] gave me a platform I would never had access to and be able to speak out for people in my position. It’s important for Canadians who are suffering to hear us and to see us. It was a difficult thing to do ─ to actually admit out loud to the world that you’re having a hard time.”
While the initiative was started in Ontario, Hennessey said by the end of this week, it will have video representation from restaurateurs in B.C., Alberta and Quebec, with more provinces set to join. “It’s going to be across the country.” In the Maritimes, suppliers will also be highlighted in the campaign. “This industry impacts one-in-five people in this country, but when you add people that touch our industry, it’s two in five. It’s a massive business and it impacts a lot of people.”
In recent days, One Table has also linked to other groups (see SaveHospitality story below) “once again to get the voice out there,” said Hennessey.
As Hennessey passionately explained, this initiative gets down to the neighbourhood level and local favourites. “It’s important for everyone to understand that for most restaurants, the margins in this business are razor thin to begin with. They don’t have a lot of cash just sitting in the bank waiting to have their business turned off for three or four months.” But he reminded everyone that restaurants are part of what makes society great and independents are the fabric of the restaurant industry. “These restaurants need to survive, but costs can’t be deferred. You can’t just say we’ll defer the rent. That doesn’t work for the majority of restaurants. They don’t have the ability to pay it back in the future. That’s where more and more help is required ─ not just to get through this downtime, but also just to be able to restart their business and to be able to survive going forward.”
Though the One Table “initiative wasn’t intended to be a legislative lobby group,” Hennessey said, “we are talking to those folks who are there talking to politicians.” And, what One Table would like to see is twofold: “Number-1 is protection for restaurateurs that the CRA can’t come in and freeze their accounts or lock their restaurants.”
Secondly, it’s all about providing forgivable loans. “If you look back at the financial crisis of 2008-’09, one of the problems was the support given wasn’t enough to get people back up and working. “The longer the mandated shutdowns happen, the higher the working capital costs are going to be to restart. You may not be able to bring back your employees so you may need to hire new employees. It’s like opening a new business so there’s working capital required. People’s bank accounts will be depleted. They’re not going to have that capital.”
That’s where government can play a crucial role, suggested Hennessey. “They can come in to provide forgivable loans of working capital to restaurant owners to be able to rehire and restart their business. It can be done simply…It’s necessary” otherwise, he warned, “the failure rate is going to be much higher.”