Canadian Restaurants Are Fighting to Save Themselves and Their Communities: Here’s How You Can Help

In Canada, “the restaurant industry” means the 100,000 or so small businesses that employ more than a million people. With no small thanks to you (and all of us, really) restaurants contributed $93 billion to our economy last year.

And right now, your neighbourhood restaurant really needs you. Sure, you can’t go and sit at the bar and represent over a bite and a beer; but take a look at how, since mid-March, restaurants have found new ways to show the spirit that makes them our favourite places to eat, drink and hang out.

The spirit shone brighter even as shutdown orders hit everywhere: Independent restaurants, bars, cafés and their workers quickly mobilized and banded together to help each other, their colleagues and others in their communities. We’ve rounded up just a sampling of what’s happening across the country.
 
 

Support for Restaurant Workers

With up to half of Canada’s independent restaurants facing an indefinite shutdown, hundreds of thousands of workers are left struggling to make ends meet. Jessica Cytryn and Kaitlin Doucette acted within days of Quebec’s self-isolation order to establish the Montreal Restaurant Workers Relief Fund (MRWRF) – one of the earliest employee-focused fundraising efforts in the country. With GoFundMe donations and partner initiative purchases amounting to over $111,000, the MRWRF has already provided support for 569 workers and is determined to widen its reach. “A good way to contribute is by spreading the word among your network,” says Cytryn. “The wider the reach, the more people we can help.”

Similar emergency relief funds have since popped up in other cities – such as the Toronto Restaurant Workers Relief Fund and the Vancouver Food and Beverage Community Relief Fund – and the Canadian Hospitality Workers Relief Fund (CHWRF) is offering one-time, $500 grants to anyone working in the wider hospitality sector facing a shortage of work. The fund, established by a coalition of restaurant groups and Uber Eats, is giving out 20,000 grants in a first wave that began on May 6. The need is unprecedented, so the aim is to grow the fund and keep helping. “We never thought we could be affected by something like this,” says CHWRF spokesperson, restaurateur and Air Canada Culinary Partner Vikram Vij. “In extreme circumstances we may have had to close for a few days or a week, but six weeks or six months? Restaurant businesses and workers have no protection against that.”

Many restaurants have opted for a “pay now, eat the food you love later” model to help keep their business and employees afloat. In Calgary, Eatlater.ca started as a single point to purchase gift cards for many local restaurants, before recently growing to support businesses from coast to coast. And the non-profit Breaking Bread is an online hub connecting consumers to more than 1,500 eateries, wineries, breweries and grocery delivery services across Canada, with a search engine to help you quickly find that pad thai or fried chicken you’ve been craving.

May 13, 2020
A woman watching an episode of the Homeschool Series on her laptop
Homeschool Series.   Photo: Christian Tisdale/Black Events

You can learn new kitchen tricks in return for your contribution to the weekly Homeschool Series collaboration with Brewery & The Beast (a set of culinary festivals that can’t happen as planned this year). Alumni chefs – including two-time Canada’s Best New Restaurants (CBNR) honouree Justin Leboe of Model Milk and Pigeonhole – and guest bartenders feature in a new cooking and cocktail prep video session each Thursday. The proceeds from each $10 episode are split between the participating chef, bartender and a charity of their choice.

Showing how to form dumplings on a baking tray in the Homeschool Series
Displaying a finished dish of dumplings with dipping sauce on the Homeschool Series
Homeschool Series.   Photo: Christian Tisdale/Black Events

Bars have also been hit hard by the pandemic and can’t easily turn to a take-out mode of operation. Since 2013, the Bartenders Benevolent Fund has provided funding for bartenders, servers and front-of-house staff facing financial difficulties due to injury and illness, and now, Covid-19. Funds are raised through individual donations, brand sponsorship and fundraising activities – Suntory-Beam Canada recently donated $50,000.
 
 

Solidarity with Small Business Owners

“As soon as the doors are closed, we start to lose money,” says John Sinopoli, co-owner and executive chef of Toronto’s Ascari restaurants. “Restaurants are closing by the hundreds every day.”

Sinopoli has managed to keep Ascari’s Leslieville kitchen operating on several fronts, from selling gift cards (50 percent of revenues go into a fund to help Ascari employees in need), to making meals to feed local healthcare workers, to donating meal kits to Community Food Centres Canada.

An employee sorting food box donations at restaurant Ascari
   Photo: Ascari

Sinopoli is also a co-founder of SaveHospitality.ca, a cross-Canada coalition of restaurants (now in the hundreds) petitioning for reforms and sector-specific stimulus – such as forgivable loans and bans on commercial evictions – to help small businesses recover from the financial disaster caused by Covid-19. “We are a huge part of the economy, but we don’t get the equivalent attention,” Sinopoli says. “So we’re asking people, if you care about restaurants and other small businesses, to call or write your city, provincial and federal representative, and ask them to back our cause.”
 
 

Feeding People in Need

When the first rumblings of forced restaurant closures began in Winnipeg, chef and catering business owner Ben Kramer’s first thought was about all of the people who would be out of work. His second was about the food. He put a call out on Instagram for donations (after his landlord first confirmed he could continue to use his kitchen rent-free) so that he and his crew could rescue food and put together meals for the Main Street Project, helping Winnipeg’s homeless community. The response was overwhelming: He received food from establishments spanning roadside diners to CBNR 2017 longlister Clementine Cafe to Hy’s Steakhouse. “I figured it would be a handful of restaurants, but it blew up and ended up being 50 or 60,” he says. “I think we processed over $100,000 worth of food in two weeks.” While the project has since wrapped up (the goal was to put leftover food to good use immediately following the first closures) Kramer is now working with Community Food Centres Canada’s Made with Love program to provide ready-to-heat meals for the NorWest Co-op Community Food Centre.

In Montreal, St-Hubert Street’s famed Montréal Plaza recently partnered with Accueil Bonneau, a centre for the homeless and at-risk in Old Montreal, to provide meals for anyone sheltering at the Royal Victoria Hospital, which has been converted to an isolation unit for people who have tested positive for Covid-19 or are awaiting test results. The restaurant is providing Royal Vic residents with some 4,000 sandwiches every week.

Employees from Rouge restaurant prep food outdoors
   Photo: Rouge Restaurant

Similarly in Calgary, the team at long-running establishment Rouge Restaurant has reactivated their kitchen in order to turn donated and redirected food into bagged lunches and meals for in-need Calgarians. To support this mission (including additional ingredients, packaging and delivery), Rouge chefs Paul Rogalski and Olivier Reynaud, SAIT culinary instructors Andrew Hewson and Simon Dunn, cook and writer Julie Van Rosendaal and Lil’ Truck on the Prairie chef-owner and Top Chef Canada contestant Elycia Ross, are also whipping up provisions like broccoli and cheddar soup, roasted vegetable pasta and chocolate mousse for a pay-what-you-can “pop-up pickup market” on the restaurant’s patio every Friday afternoon.

Employees of Rouge Restaurant onboard their food truck
Stacks of pizza boxes from Rouge Restaurant
   Photos: Rouge Restaurant

In Newfoundland, St. John’s restaurants Terre and Merchant Tavern have been helping local community organization Artforce address issues of food security for local underemployed youth, creating and delivering 100 meals each week. And in Vancouver, after a few weeks of cooking meals for residents of the city’s Downtown Eastside (in addition to offering a takeout menu), Chambar Restaurant spearheaded the Food Coalition. The initiative connects restaurants like Wildebeest and Fable and partners including Foodee, the City of Vancouver and the Greater Vancouver Food Bank to prepare and distribute eats to the city’s most vulnerable, such as seniors, frontline health workers and the homeless.
 
 

Meals for Frontline Medical Workers

Other restaurants that were caught with weeks’ worth of perishable supplies and no customers to cook for turned their efforts to supplying meals to frontline medical workers. After Conor Joerin, the owner of Sugo and Conzo’s Pizzeria in Toronto, posted on Instagram about donating food to the cause, he got requests from healthcare facilities and hospitals. He reached out to his buddies known as The Marinara Boys, including Leo Baldassare (Famiglia Baldassarre), Nick Genova and James Carnevale (Bar Ape Gelato) and Rosario Salvi (Sovereign Cafe), who all agreed to help out. They’re now serving meals to four hospitals every week.

“James was stuck at home under quarantine, so he set up a GoFundMe that has since raised more than $35,000,” says Joerin. “Leo started making pasta, and we all started packing meals and making deliveries, as well as raising money.”

Joerin says the group’s philosophy is to serve the same high-quality, nutritious food to frontline workers that they would serve in their respective restaurants – this means sourcing premium produce such as Burrata that would otherwise go unused at this time. “There is a lot of product stuck in limbo: food that was going to go to waste unless we bought it and turned it into meals for hospitals.”

An employee of The Marinara Boys in a black face mask
Workers from The Marinara Boys pack a truck full of food ready for delivery
   Photos: The Marinara Boys

In Vancouver, Chef David Hawksworth, owner of the acclaimed Hawksworth, Nightingale and Bel Café, and Air Canada Culinary Partner, has been regularly serving meals to doctors and nurses at St. Paul’s Hospital through his Feed the Frontlines initiative. Winnipeg’s restaurant community has also stepped up to provide meals for frontline workers with several programs. Another Toronto initiative, Feed the Frontlines TO, has raised $226,460 to make and deliver meals to healthcare workers, from restaurants including Pukka, Five Doors North, Little Sister Indonesian Food Bar, Pomegranate Restaurant and Tabule.
 
 

Restaurants Paying It Forward

Over the last two months, those who are still able to operate through online orders have rallied to donate a portion of their sales to others who are in need. Chefs in Montreal have tapped into the rise in home cooking with CBNR alumni Elena launching two digital cookbooks, Elena: Remember Skin Contact?, filled with their own recipes, and Elena and Friends: A Tight-Knit (But Socially Distanced) Community Cookbook featuring contributions from some of Montreal’s top chefs, both of which benefit the Montreal Restaurant Workers Relief Fund. Food journalist (and enRoute contributor) Amie Watson released Quarantine Cooking, benefitting the same cause.

The front cover of restaurant Elena's digital cookbook
An illustration of a table filled with food from Elena's digital cookbook
   Photos: Elena

In Toronto, The Drake Hotel and Drake Commissary are offering medical workers a 30 percent discount on take-out orders (in addition to discounted hotel rates). You can also send something special in the Greater Toronto Area with a gift box or decadent pantry items from Salt Gourmet Foods where for every $50 or more spent, the equivalent of three meals will be donated to the Daily Bread Food Bank.

Calgary restaurant Nights & Weekends is giving 50 percent of proceeds from purchases of gift cards to their staff and, on the west coast, local businesses come together to give a portion of the sales to the Vancouver Food + Beverage Community Relief Fund satiating your coffee (Luna Coffee’s Juicebox Series), chocolate (BETA5 Chocolates) and beer (Twin Sails Brewings’s All Together I.P.A) cravings, all for a good cause.

So, if you’re looking for an easy way to help out someone in need: Go get something to eat. After all, what’s more sustaining than a good meal?

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