There’s much to envy about the West-Coast foodservice landscape — and not just in February, when spring flowers bloom while much of the country is still digging itself out of snowbanks. Restaurants Canada reports that British Columbia’s approximately 13,000 restaurants “led the country with a 7.7-per-cent jump in foodservice sales in 2017.”
“There’s a lot of opportunity here, lots of innovation,” says Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the British Columbia Restaurant & Food Services Association (BCRFA). “We grow a lot of the [food] we eat; more and more we’re seeing restaurants making a big commitment to local and there’s a natural synergy with the local wine industry.”
B.C.’s foodservice revenues have been growing for several years. Statistics Canada finds sales in “foodservice and drinking places” rose steadily in 2018 from $970,350,000 in January to $1,027,399,000 in August. (In the Yukon, they fluctuated between a low of $5,842,000 in February and a high of $6,739,000 in July.)
Figures compiled by Restaurants Canada suggest that B.C. foodservice outlets generate $14 billion in annual sales, employing 7.3 per cent of the provincial workforce and accounting for five per cent of its GDP. Statistics Canada found B.C. exceeded annual national gains between 2016 and 2017, with a sales increase of 6.7 per cent at full-service restaurants (compared to the national average of 5.9 per cent), 10.4 per cent in limited-service restaurants (compared to 5.6 per cent) and six per cent in drinking places (compared to 0.4 per cent).
“We’re seeing a lot of innovation,” Tostenson says. “There’s a new company called Brewhall that’s a self-serve concept; it’s designed to increase interaction with guests and requires less labour to run. We’re seeing that trend happening — self-serve fine dining.”
Other innovators include some of the usual suspects. “McDonald’s and A&W are always innovative, always pushing the limits in QSR,” he says, also naming burger chain Triple O’s and, “in terms of pushing the limits in the upper-casual level, Cactus Club, Earl’s and The Keg.”
B.C.’s minimum wage is scheduled to rise from the current $12.65 an hour to $15.20 by June 1, 2021. However, the main labour-market challenges are high housing costs and a low unemployment rate, which have resulted in a severe worker shortage.
But perhaps the biggest threat to traditional restaurant dining is coming from the instant-gratification mindset perpetuated by social media, says well-known entrepreneur Vikram Vij, chef-owner and sommelier for his own restaurant and prepared-food empire, Vij’s Group of Companies.
“Places like Door Dash and SkipTheDishes, their models have worked, so people want it fast and quick. [Instead of] bigger restaurants, where families used to come out, they’re opting for delivery,” he says. What’s motivating diners to go out to eat? An interest in global cuisines, a desire for spicier food and a passion for fresh, local and sustainable fare, he says.
Whether it’s Korean, Japanese, Malaysian or Moroccan, “globalization of cuisines is happening a lot, which is brilliant,” says Vij. Diners “have travelled, so they know the difference between South Africa and East Africa.” In addition, “people are saying ‘I want it a little oomphier: I want the food to have a little bit more pizazz, a little more wow factor’.” Asian-inspired condiments such as chutneys and chili oils are in high demand, he notes.
The love of local is apparent everywhere. “There’s a lot more awareness of how eating local would affect all of us directly or indirectly,” says executive chef Welbert Choi of the farm-to-table bistro Forage in Vancouver. “One of our signatures is the bison; we’ve never served beef products, because we’ve realized that bison is more sustainable and the flavour is much better.”
Hastings House, a Relais & Chateaux property on Salt Spring Island, B.C., caters to an affluent tourist population. “Our executive chef is from Switzerland; he’s been with the property 25 years,” says general manager Ronald Decter. “Hastings House has 22 acres of land and only 18 rooms — very much in the style of an English country-house hotel — and we’ve devoted a large proportion of our land to growing fresh produce for our kitchen, all of which is non-GMO and grown according to organic farming methods.”
Kitchen staff can literally pick their own non-GMO, organic strawberries, tomatoes, lettuces, cabbages, cucumbers, eggplant and edible flowers. “In the peak of summer, we’re producing close to 70 per cent of our fresh produce,” says dining manager Ron Turner. In the Okanagan Valley, where the local wine industry continues to boom, “we’re bringing back the reasons why we eat food,” says Andrea Callan. She’s chef de cuisine at Red Fox Club, an Aboriginal-inspired restaurant at Indigenous World Winery in West Kelowna, owned by Robert and Bernice Louie.
“He’s a former chief of Westbank First Nation and has created one of the most financially stable First Nations in B.C., due to his forward-thinking and his preservation of the culture,” she says.
Red Fox Club focuses on “the thoughtfulness to serve bison with rosehips, not just because it tastes great, but because rosehips have a lot of Vitamin C. We serve mallow because it has antioxidant qualities and lichen because it has liver-cleansing properties,” Callan says. “We bring back the idea of serving food on stones; we always have a seasonal tartare on the menu served on large boulder stones, to reiterate how the people ate.”
Although national food suppliers, such as Sysco Canada and Gordon Food Service (GFS), dominate the industry, the focus on local calls for specialty suppliers as well. At Vancouver’s Forage, “I spend a lot of time building relationships with local farmers and fishermen,” says Choi. At Hastings House, local artisanal producers, such as Salt Spring Island Cheese Company, Sunnyhill Farm (eggs), Ruckle Heritage Farm (lamb), Salt Spring Wild Cidery and Salt Spring Island Ales, round out the homegrown menus. Restaurants are also incorporating foraged foods into the menu.
Despite a few constraints, West-Coast foodservice businesses have plenty of scope for innovation and creativity. As Vikram Vij says, when it comes to challenges, “it’s not about complaining; it’s more about working with the times. I’ve always been somebody who says ‘Go out and create the dishes!’”
Written by Sarah B. Hood