Like it or not, the Alberta government has resolved all pandemic-related restrictions. As a result, most restaurants have done away with their plexiglass barriers and extensive table spacing.
As close as normalcy can feel these days, the rapid rollout of the provincial reopening has left restaurateurs scrambling in a myriad of ways outside of simply revising the physical layout of their dining rooms and patios. Most operators are finding it difficult to find staff while others are struggling to come to terms with a lack of government-directed safety procedures.
Adam Snelling is the operations manager for Bearhill Brewing Co. The industry veteran is based in Calgary at the hospitality group’s flagship concept Last Best Brewing and Distilling, but the company has locations in Edmonton, Banff, Jasper and Fort McMurray. As a result, he has been preparing for this return to “normal” in slightly different ways depending on the region – especially with reinstating a full work force.
“We knew that it was going to be difficult to staff in a mountain town like Jasper so we were very aggressive with hiring efforts months out,” he explains. “We decided to run a much higher payroll to be able to service the community right and do things properly. Banff has also been very tricky for us.”
Many hospitality businesses in tourist destinations such as Banff and Jasper rely heavily on international workers. Mr. Snelling says that the inability of people from other countries to get into Canada during the pandemic has seriously decreased the pool of available workers.
“I think Banff has been one of the hardest hit. It stopped being this town with this, you know, infectious youthful energy and began to really struggle, just scraping by,” he says. “It is a town that’s been built on a foundation of the food and beverage and tourism industries.”
On the flip side, Mr. Snelling says the group’s Edmonton concept, Campio Brewing Co., has been a highly desirable place to work and free of hiring hurdles. Calgary’s Last Best has fared similarly.
Now that most Bearhill brewpubs have removed their plexi setups and resumed regular table spacing – though Last Best’s plexiglass will remain on communal patio tables – Mr. Snelling says they will continue to make sure their employees feel safe in the workplace as thoughts of pandemic-related risks linger.
Edmonton’s Katy Ingraham owns and operates Fleisch Delikatessen, a go-to for many locals that is known for its thoughtful, casual fare and warm atmosphere. Ms. Ingraham also owned the cocktail bar Cartago, which closed permanently earlier this year as a result of the pandemic, and has been vocal about the struggles restaurants such as hers have faced over the past 15 months.
Despite the province dissolving pandemic-related restrictions, as well as Edmonton dropping its mandatory-mask bylaw on July 1, Fleisch won’t be returning to normal any time soon. The deli will continue to request patrons to wear masks inside while ordering and offering patio seating only.
“[The big issue for] me is that they are okay to put people in public facing positions at risk, simply because they’re wanting to move forward on a metric that no other jurisdiction is moving forward with, which is a percentage of first doses,” she says. “When you look at the actual numbers of who’s protected in Alberta and how the Delta variant is attacking people – many individuals who only have one dose – the numbers don’t make sense.”
For Ms. Ingraham, her concerns are not about staffing or being able to fill all tables inside and out, but rather staff safety. Last November, she ceased indoor dining operations in both of her eateries two weeks before the provincial government made it mandatory.
“I’ve been very cautious throughout this whole thing, but we’re allowing ourselves to be a little bit optimistic about this summer and about the way that we’re trending,” she says. “The beginning of August is going to give us a lot of information and if that information is positive and we’re still moving in a good direction – despite [the Calgary Stampede going forward] and everything that’s happened – then we’ll start to make more concrete plans for the fall.”
The Edmonton restaurateur acknowledges that whether one is looking critically at government support for hospitality businesses since last spring or a business’s path to returning to normal now, there never has been and will never be a one-size-fits-all solution for this industry. Each business has its unique challenges.
Ms. Ingraham adds that a wild card in Alberta will be its struggling economy.
“We had a pretty fledgling economy before the pandemic hit. We certainly have it now and we’re going to have it post-pandemic. It will be interesting to see what diners will be willing to pay and how that will affect different types of dining experiences, but also the recovery of [dining experiences]. In the next few months, I think we’ll see what the impact of this will be on our restaurants here in Alberta.”
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