What is a restaurant’s role is in the community? Restaurateur Court Desautels has a ready answer: “We’re the cornerstones of neighbourhoods; we’re the modern-day church. We’re a place where you celebrate something momentous that’s happened in your life. We are the chosen gathering spot for a community.”
Restaurants are indeed critical pillars of the economy and are essential to reviving communities as Canada builds back after extended and continuing COVID lockdowns. The more than 90,000 small and medium-sized businesses that make up the foodservice industry not only provide the country’s fourth-largest source of private-sector jobs, they also reflect Canada’s diversity and support community values.
“We’re the first place sporting teams and organizations reach out to when they’re raising money,” says Mr. Desautels, CEO of The Neighbourhood Group, a collection of five restaurants across southern Ontario. “Successful [communities] have great foodservice restaurants and a great art scene. We’re culture-builders.”
As their company grew and they added new restaurants, Mr. Desautels and his partners thought about their restaurants’ role in their communities and their guiding principles as a company. They decided to operate restaurants that promote locally crafted natural foods and beverages while championing the farmers who produce them. They also wanted to create unique venues that preserve the past while showcasing regional building materials and the work of local craftspeople and trades, and they wanted to operate their restaurants in a sustainable way, with a goal of reducing their carbon footprint and overall waste.
“It had to go beyond food and drinks,” Mr. Desautels says. “So we started looking at everything. Where were our napkins being made? What were they being made out of? We looked at tables, chairs, building materials, uniforms. We started sourcing as much as possible from Ontario manufacturers, or Canadian ones. To be local, you had to analyze every facet of your business.”
Sustainability is important, and in the global pandemic, The Neighbourhood Group – like many restaurants — has found innovative ways to continue making a difference in its communities.
Mr. Desautels says the shutdowns have often left him with fridges full of product. He estimates that at times he’s had as much as $100,000 in inventory. Before the first lockdown, he established a plan.
“We packaged it all up and did a farmer’s market for our staff,” he says. “We shut down within days, then we opened up our fridges and put care packages together. We took all the remaining ingredients and turned them into soups, curries, anything that could be frozen, and donated it all to some local charities who were handing out food to people in need. I guess we could have preserved some things, but we knew the community needed it.”
The other thing they did was create an employee relief fund with a goal of raising $10,000.
“We did online gift card sales, telling people we were donating all the proceeds to staff through our employee relief fund,” Mr. Desautels says. “By the end, we had $60,000 and then we figured out an equitable way to give it out. We had a selection committee and invited members of our team to apply. The money went from paying for rent and groceries to paying for laptops for kids.”
Many customers said they had no intention of redeeming the gift cards. They just wanted to help the staff, members of their community, again stressing from their end the importance of restaurants.
Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications with Restaurants Canada. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved