Stefan Hartmann's eyes light up when he talks about tacos.
"What is better than fresh grilled meat in a taco?" asks the outgoing executive chef of Bauhaus Restaurant. (No, he's not rhapsodizing about Rene Redzepi's latest pop-up, Noma Mexico.) "The taco is ideal. You can make simple ingredients, but make them perfect, and put them in a taco that everyone will be so happy to eat."
Mr. Hartmann hasn't looked this enthused since he arrived in Vancouver two years ago. He had come from Berlin, soon after closing his one-Michelin-starred Hartmanns Restaurant, determined to dazzle the city with his elegant modern-German tasting menus. Unfortunately, fine-dining-averse Vancouverites were more impressed with his à-la-carte schnitzel. It was an excellent schnitzel, all golden-crisped and bubbly. Still, a schnitzel is only a few pounded prep-steps away from a taco. So perhaps it shouldn't be all that surprising to hear that he is jumping from Bauhaus to Tacofino – yes, Tacofino, the little hippie food truck that grew into a small restaurant chain – where he will soon begin a new position as regional executive chef in charge of menu development and expansion.
And another one bites the chain-gang dust.
In the highly competitive Canadian restaurant sector, one in which customer traffic has remained flat for the past five years, independent full-service restaurants are taking a beating from chain restaurants (defined as three restaurants or more under the same brand). Last year, according to market research firm NPD Group, a record 2,047 independents closed across the country, while the chains continued to grow.
In Metro Vancouver, home base for many of the large, high-quality chains – Cactus Club Café, Earls, Joey Restaurants and The Keg – the independents are being hit even harder by their hyper-local brand awareness, marketing muscle, lockdown on prime real estate (in an incredibly tough market) and immense recruiting strength, from entry-level line cooks (a labour market in critical short supply) to top executive chefs.
"Vancouver has been a culinary hot spot for many years," says Robert Carter, The NPD Group's executive director of food service. "It had a lot of innovative independents that flourished. Vancouver also saw the emergence of a great number of chain concepts that may have helped stimulate the market, but are now stealing it away. The independents just can't compete. "
Mr. Hartmann is following what has become an increasingly common pattern for some of the most distinguished restaurant chefs in Vancouver: After hustling over a hot stove for upwards of 15 hours a day, six days a week for a couple of decades, he or she reaches the top of their game, gazes down wearily at the rat maze below and thinks, "No, I'd much rather do spreadsheets for taco bowls and burgers, coach some young cooks, work a regular daytime shift and pocket a handsome salary than take out a second mortgage and risk my kid's college fund on the rapidly diminishing returns of running an independent restaurant in this godforsaken economy."
The high-level recruitment began almost a decade ago, when the Cactus Club Café hired Iron Chef Rob Feenie as its "food concept architect." As Cactus now gears up for an aggressive eastward expansion, it has recently added Marc-André Choquette (Mr. Feenie's chef de cuisine at Lumière back in the day) and Greg McCallum (former chef de cuisine at the award-winning L'Abattoir) to its all-star roster. Last fall, Kristian Eligh, the Hawksworth Restaurant Group's former culinary director, was recruited by Browns Restaurant Group to join heavyweights Damon Campbell (former executive chef at Toronto's Bosk in the Shangri-La Hotel) and Michael Steh (executive chef for Toronto's Chase Hospitality Group). Earls, Joey Restaurants, even the up-and-coming Joseph Richard Group – they have all cherry-picked some of the best chefs, sommeliers and general managers in the business.
After 24 years behind the line, Mr. Hartmann is ready to move on to a more promising future at Tacofino, which is also moving east, where he says his talent will be put to better use teaching others how to make elevated tacos. (Bauhaus, in the meantime, has beefed up its fine-dining kitchen team by hiring a new award-winning German chef, Tim Schulte. He and the current sous chef, David Mueller, will be co-executive chefs).
"What am I doing here, really?" he says, shoulders suddenly sagging as he slumps over the bar at Bauhaus, which is owned by film director Uwe Boll. "It's just for my ego. Fine dining, if that's what you call this, it's tough in a city like Vancouver."
Earlier this week, Tacofino held a job fair. The company may have hired Mr. Hartmann, but much like every other restaurant in British Columbia, it is still short on sous chefs, line cooks, dishwashers and prep cooks.
"I think this new generation is right in saying that there is no honour in killing yourself," says Brandon Grossutti, owner-operator of the lauded PiDGiN Restaurant in the Downtown Eastside, which has had numerous ups and downs since it opened four years ago and was picketed by anti-poverty protesters all summer. Since then, his kitchen has gone through three complete turnovers.
"I can't compete with what the chains are doing, but I'm tired of having really good people move out of the industry or move into those stores. I'm also selfish because I want good cooks – the best in Vancouver."
To attract and retain them, PiDGiN recently announced a new "life-balance program" in which cooks work a 4 1/2-day week (and are paid for five), not exceeding 45 hours. He does this by overstaffing and having one rotating prep cook come in early to work through all the stations, allowing everyone else to come in a little later and work eight to 10 hours instead of the typical 12 to 15. He also throws in a free fitness-club pass and offers co-paid extended health benefits to full-time employees who have been with the company for more than a year.
"Sure, we're taking some on the chin and we're already riding very slim margins. But happy people make good food and rested people can be more creative."
Ultimately, in order to make the industry truly sustainable, Mr. Grossutti says consumers are going to have to start paying more for their restaurant meals, a sentiment echoed widely. "But like everything else in Vancouver, that's hard to do when to do when you're mortgage-poor and barely able to eat at Tacofino."
Just how bad is Vancouver's indie-restaurant scene?
Chef-owner, Cioppino's Mediterranean Grill
"Five to 10 years ago, a very successful restaurant would make 10 per cent [profit-margin share]. Nobody in any other industry works for 10 per cent. Now, because of the cost of living, wages and everything else going up, you are a success if you make between 1 and 3 per cent. The franchises make up to 20 per cent. They are killing fine dining."
Owner-operator, PiDGiN Restaurant
"Everyone in Vancouver expects organic, but they all have fast-food wallets. The chains can go to their gigantic national food supply companies and bid down prices [because of their bulk buying power]. Their food cost is 25 per cent; ours, in a good restaurant, is 35 per cent. Yet when we give you a bill, we have to compete with Cactus."
Co-owner, Gringo, Dixie's BBQ
"This fall, the minimum wage goes up 50 cents across the board. That's $10,000 for me, directly out of my pocket. I'm not saying that people don't deserve to get paid more. Hell, yeah. But I'll be trimming half-hours off shifts where and when I can. It's death by every nickel."
Executive chef, Bishop's; former co-owner-operator, the Sardine Can, La Buca, Pied-a-Terre
"There are two ways you can make a restaurant economically viable, or at least this used to be the model in Vancouver: through continued expansion or constant rationalization and consolidation. You say, 'Okay, my linen cost is 35 per cent. Next month, I'll tighten the belt and cut down on towels, which means the cooks will burn their hands, but at least I made it to 33 per cent.'"
Former chef-owner, Hamilton Street Grill
"Rents are an issue. But on top of the base rent are the property taxes you have to pay when you have a commercial lease. That's where people really start to choke, because you're not in control of that. It's adjusted year to year. At the end of the day, I was paying about $5,000 a month of property tax for the building as well as the common area."
"A lot of people say they want to work here. They say they want to learn and cook the same food that they're cooking at Noma or 11 Madison Park, but they don't want to work more than 10 hours a day and they want to make $18 an hour. What world do they live in?"