Many Vancouver restaurants are thanking their plucky feathered friends this weekend. Sales of turkey dinners to-go have been flying out of kitchens for a milestone holiday stuffed with new meaning as the beleaguered hospitality industry prepares for an uncertain winter by pivoting hard back to takeout and myriad innovations.
From Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar’s sumptuous sage-roasted turkey breast spread with Madeira-scented giblet gravy to Juke Fried Chicken’s southern Turducken meal kit with jalapeno corn bread, bacon jam and instructional cooking videos – more than a dozen festive specials to be enjoyed at home (most being offered for the first time) have sold out across the city.
“It’s been crazy,” says Justin Cheung, chef-owner of the newly opened Potluck Hawker Eatery on Cambie Street.
He and his partners expected to sell about 25 orders of their whole coconut-milk-fried chicken, Singaporean black-pepper crab and combined surf-and-turf sets, which cost $130 to $200, feed four to six people and come with all sorts of Southeast Asian street-food fixings, including golden mantou buns and salted-egg-yolk polenta.
By Wednesday, having already assigned a full-time staff member to field requests and cancelling this weekend’s lunch service to facilitate customer pickups, they capped out at 100.
“It might be because people don’t want to go to crowded grocery stores to line up for a turkey,” says Mr. Cheung, who is befuddled yet grateful and already planning his Christmas specials. Though next time, he’ll use a better ordering system.
“Turkey is a symbol of normalcy,” says Kevin Mazzone, general manager of The Lazy Gourmet catering company, which, as of Thursday, had sold 1,163 orders of its classic lemon-roasted turkey and beet Wellington dinner sets. That’s more turkey (or its vegan equivalent) in one weekend than it sold for the entire month of December last year.
“And right now,” he continues, “everyone is looking for something to celebrate in this new normal, but on a smaller scale without their extended family and all the work that type of turkey dinner entails.”
This year’s Thanksgiving weekend has become a turning point of sorts in the COVID-era restaurant calendar, more akin to the U.S. Thanksgiving and its Black Friday retail shopping blowout, which typically signals the beginning of the Christmas season.
With the late arrival of rainy weather – as the 28-day closings take effect in Quebec and the daily reported cases of COVID-19 in Ontario continue to soar – Vancouver restaurants are closing down their patios (the winterized future of which is still unpredictable, as city managers and council continues to hash out the costs, safety protocols and necessary bylaw changes) and leaning into takeout or other new streams of revenue to help keep them, and others, afloat.
Not all restaurants jumped on the turkey-takeout bandwagon.
“It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to do everything to make it work while never really getting ahead,” says Karri Green-Schuermans, co-owner of Chambar Restaurant.
“Our takeout sales during the COVID shutdowns were dismal. It wasn’t even worth it because of the cost to distribute the meals through DoorDash. We just did it to keep a few people employed. We won’t be staying open for takeout if there’s another shutdown. And we’re not doing a Thanksgiving special because it takes so much effort and energy. We also knew how many other people were doing it.”
For now, she says, Chambar is focusing on what it does best: “Offering amazing service at the restaurant for the fewer people who choose to dine out.”
They are also working on scaling their Into The Wild line of frozen packaged meals, which are now available in-store at Choices and Stong’s and online through Legend’s Haul and SPUD home delivery.
“It doesn’t make up for the loss in revenue” from early closings and reduced capacity, she says. “But it’s growing steadily.”
All across Vancouver, restaurateurs are rethinking their business strategies.
On Main Street, Como Taperia is getting ready to launch an online store through a spiffy new Shopify platform that will also offer food boxes filled with par-cooked meals, tinned conservas, specialty groceries and wine.
“Takeout doesn’t really work for our food,” says co-owner Shaun Layton. “But when we put up a grocery shelf in the restaurant, the takeout sales almost made up for the lost table. So if there is another shutdown, like in Quebec, between these kits and the online market we could probably stay open and employ a few people.”
Botanist, recently reopened at the Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel, has just announced a new collaborative dinner series, Travel With Your Palate, which will host an all-star cast of top Vancouver chefs to benefit the Vancouver Food and Beverage Community Relief Fund.
Caffè La Tana owner Paul Grunberg has been doing a bit of both – upscale online groceries (“if the bottom falls out again we are bullet-proof”) and collaborations with friends, which this weekend includes custom hand-tied floral bouquets from Cadine and classic pumpkin pies from Mon Pitou bakery.
“We had a conversation about turkeys,” he says. “But why would be bother? Everyone is doing turkey kits. And takeout, for us, is a lose-lose proposition.”
The collaborations, he says, aren’t really profitable either. "We did a lot of campaigns with ‘influencers.’ And we gave a lot of products to chefs who were out of work.
“It didn’t drive much traffic. But that’s not what it’s all about. It’s about trying to be socially conscious in a really tough time when community is more important than ever. I don’t know if we had that before the pandemic and maybe that’s the silver lining. It’s not so much about collaboration, it’s about looking after your friends.”
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