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Love 'em or hate 'em, 2016 was the year of the Vancouver-based chain restaurant groups, which dominated the news, for good and for bad.

Global spread

Last year, Cactus Club Cafe finally opened a shiny flagship in Toronto. Although the behemoth failed to impress some critics, it certainly wooed the masses and has been packed to the rooftop-patio rafters ever since. Earls launched an ambitious prototype in Calgary, Earls.67, a local rendition of which we shall soon see in Ambleside, West Vancouver.

Humane beef

Earls also made headlines when it pledged to use only certified humane beef from a single U.S. supplier. The restaurant group backed down after fierce criticism from local farmers (putting Canadian beef back on its menus in Alberta and Saskatchewan), but not before raising overdue national attention to "conscious" sourcing and animal welfare.

Dress codes

Both companies came under fire for their sexist dress codes. Last spring, a report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission said uniform policies that require women to wear high heels, short skirts or low-cut tops could violate human rights. The restaurants either demurred, reaffirming that female servers have always had the freedom to wear pants, or avoided the issue. The results have been mixed. We're seeing more comfortable slacks on the floors, but the iconic silhouette of the scantily clad "Earls Girl" will likely never go away.

Talent acquisition

With somewhat less fanfare, the West Coast chains continue to gobble up some of the best talent in the industry. This fall, Kristian Eligh left Hawksworth to become the new culinary development chef at Browns Restaurant Group, joining newly acquired 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). Over at the Cactus Club, Marc-André Choquette (formerly of the Loden Hotel) has been reunited with Rob Feenie (Mr. Choquette was Feenie's long-time chef de cuisine at Lumière). Mr. Choquette replaces Matt Stowe. The Top Chef Canada winner left Cactus, not to open his own Fraser Valley farm-to-table restaurant as he has long dreamed, but to join another up-and-coming chain, S+L Kitchen and Bar, run by Master Chef Canada winner David Jorge. Last spring, Jason Yamasaki, 2015's sommelier of the year at the Vancouver International Wine Festival, left Chambar to join Joey Restaurants as its group sommelier.

Labour crisis

You can't help but wonder where all this high-level poaching will lead, but the underlying reasons for wanting to join a chain restaurant are obvious. Compared with independent restaurants, the chains offer better wages, benefits, work schedules and opportunities for training and development. This reality was confirmed by a local study, the Cook Labour Market Analysis, published last summer by go2HR, an arm of BC Tourism, formerly known as the Hospitality Industry Education Advisory Committee. The B.C. restaurant industry is facing a serious labour crisis, a trend that is being experienced all over North America. Cooks and chefs are exiting the industry in droves because they are undervalued and overworked. Women in kitchens are dropping out at an even higher rate than men. Dramatic changes to compensation (minimum wages) and employment policies (childcare, maternity leave, job sharing) are desperately needed. As consumers, we had better be willing to pay higher prices in restaurants. If not, our steaks are soon going to be flipped by robots and our orders taken at self-serve kiosks, as is already being done at McDonald's and KFC.

Next week, we'll review the hot trends of the year in other restaurant news.

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