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Karen Kho, co-owner of Empire Provisions, has lunch at the Annex Ale Project in Calgary, on April 15, 2021.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Alberta’s restaurant industry has endured three rounds of shutdowns over the past year, each prompted by increasingly powerful waves of COVID-19. The latest restrictions started last week, when a sharp rise in infections prompted the provincial government to shut down indoor dining yet again.

Karen Kho, co-owner of Calgary’s Empire Provisions, which specializes in packaged foods and cured meats, and its fast-casual sister eatery Lil’ Empire, says it’s been a tumultuous year that has forced the industry to band together.

She’s doing her part through an Instagram campaign called #YYCRestoBingo, which encourages people to eat through a list of 25 independently owned restaurants and bars – either through takeout or patio service, both of which are still allowed.

“I believe the best businesses in our city have learned to band together over the past year. It’s not just about marketing support either, it’s the emotional support that has helped us get through the never-ending roller coaster,” Ms. Kho says.

“Our industry is nothing without each other. A dining culture in Calgary that is based on chain restaurants and cookie-cutter menus is soulless.”

There are two grand prizes as well as gift cards for active players, and the campaign has been picking up steam since it launched a week ago. Ms. Kho says beyond the contest, the main intent of her food-focused bingo is for people to continue to support the eateries they know and love.

She said most of the businesses participating are friends and colleagues whose establishments have been presented with constant hurdles because of the pandemic.

“There has been an unbelievable outpouring of support from both participating restaurants and their loyal fans,” Ms. Kho says. “There is a lot of negative energy online right now, so it’s been rejuvenating to be a part of some positive messaging.”

The bingo contest wraps up April 26. Although the local response has been overwhelming, she’s hoping she won’t need to run it a second time as the pandemic restrictions are eased.

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Some of the restaurants on the bingo card also participating in a separate campaign, Poutine With Purpose.

In 2010, Karen Richards piled 35 Calgarians on a bus and drove them around the city in search of the best poutine. Her “poutine crawl” was a classroom experiment of sorts, something playful she thought up with her social-media students at Mount Royal University to see if a small event promoted only on Twitter and Facebook could succeed.

The annual Poutine With Purpose event has since morphed a multicity poutine campaign that helps to raise thousands of dollars for the food security charity Mealshare.

The pandemic and the restrictions on indoor dining will affect this year’s campaign after it was cancelled last year, but Ms. Richards said the pandemic has meant the campaign has taken on a new importance.

“It’s been such a positive experience in asking restaurants to join the event this year, more than any other year. To have so many that have gone through and continue to go through so much over the past year to be excited to join a grassroots event like Poutine With Purpose? I feel so grateful and lucky to be a part of this community,” she says.

Poutine With Purpose will run from April 23 to May 1. While the majority of the participating restaurants and bars are in Calgary, it also has businesses taking part in Victoria, Vancouver and Hamilton.

While not pandemic-related, several Saskatoon restaurants have also recently banded together for a common cause, Prairie Harm Reduction. The supervised-consumption site, Saskatchewan’s first, was recently denied financing by the provincial government, which led to outcry from locals.

Saskatoon’s Bryn Rawlyk has always made an effort to support local charity initiatives by donating a portion of monthly sales from his feature creations at Darkside Donuts. The director of Prairie Harm Reduction said Mr. Rawlyk’s doughnuts were doing more for his charity than the Saskatchewan government was.

People took note and now many local food and drink establishments such as City Perks Coffeehouse, Primal, and Sparrow Coffee are also helping to raise both funds and awareness for the struggling program.

Mr. Rawlyk says it’s been amazing to see local businesses jumping on board to support the cause, even when times for the business owners themselves are notably tough.

“The year has been this after that and continues to surprise us each week. In the end, it’s not like the money we raise is wildly impressive, but I firmly believe that we should do the best we can with what we have,” he says. “We make rad doughnuts and support the amazing work of Prairie Harm Reduction and other non-profits in our city.”

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