The milk crate is an iconic symbol of the working class hospitality stiff. These durable, utilitarian boxes are used as walk-in cooler shelving as often as they are transformed into make-shift chairs, stools or tables. Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant — front of house or back — has found themselves sitting on one for a moment of respite. They are ‘the great back-alley equalizer’, and because of this, they are a venue for some of the most authentic conversations and honest human connections happening in the industry.
Everywhere you look these days, pressures and strains such as food, fuel, rent and staffing costs are forcing restaurants to raise their prices – and they will only become increasingly prohibitive. Obviously, dining out in general is already not financially viable for everyone, but…
As prices continue to climb, are we in danger of seeing some portion of the existing customer base – including those who actually work in restaurants – become unable to afford to dine out? A line-up of 10 Vancouver restaurateurs speak to different aspects of the issue…
The Answers: How to Adapt?
We have seen lettuce go from two dollars per head to six dollars and up! It’s at the point now where my veg supplier is only listing them on the fresh sheet as “market price.” In reality, though, they aren’t even bringing in lettuce because they deem them too expensive or not good enough quality to sell. I have to take two of our core sandwiches OFF the menu in order to remove lettuce from our regular purchase orders, as we can’t afford them or we can’t even get them.
Prices are going up and they are not coming down again. This is the new normal and we need to adapt fast. Grow your own indoor or outdoor vegetables at home. Get some chickens and get your own eggs. Support local restaurants and bars in your neighbourhood and tip well. Support your local supermarkets and try to do trades with friends and family. We need to work together and demand more support and solutions from our government.
Andrea Carlson | Owner + Chef, Burdock & Co
The seemingly increasing costs of EVERYTHING all at once – not just the beef or labour – makes it very tricky to navigate. Restaurants have no option but to increase what they charge on the menu. People have been saying that eating in restaurants has become unattainable for a while. As a chef I certainly see that when travelling abroad. It’s completely common to see well-rated restaurants in the US strictly doing tasting menus, starting at $225 a head for a food only menu. This isn’t for a three star place either… Fortunately, a huge part of culinary inspiration for me still comes from flavours rather than the theatre that is so often associated with fine dining. And that clear, unadulterated expression of ingredients is still out there at many small casual places.
Cost of goods, especially in the last couple of years, have made it extra challenging, for sure. I think some hospitality people who work for well-managed spots are getting proper wages when due. Hospitality workers are often the ones who spend their money going out to eat on their down time, and they realize that keeping their money in the local economy by supporting small businesses matters. Besides raising prices (which should be a thing considering Vancouver’s high rents anyways), a lot of spots have been getting better at utilizing what would be waste/trash into usable ingredients. As far as creativity under pressure, this is probably the best place to start instead of lowering the quality of goods used in the kitchen.
Kam Wai has been in business in Chinatown for 31 years. Our connection to our community started when my sister Susan and I were kids, and a lot of our customers grew old with us. We knew their kids, went to Chinese school with their grandkids, and they worked and lived in our neighbourhood. We’ve always known that, to have a sustainable business in Chinatown, is to keep our prices low. The bulk of our retail business is to serve those who live in our community, that have supported us for numerous years. Our quick service dim sum counter has been a food security solution for so many whom live in our neighbourhood and the DTES. We love seeing so many familiar faces that come by every day. So for us, finding creative solutions to keep our prices low has been vital. It’s a big part of what we value in our business: human interface and being accessible to all.
A major way that we’ve been able to keep our prices low is our wholesale business. We’re able to supplement our quick service food counter and retail business through our wholesale business because we believe in continuing to support our neighbourhood in becoming a vibrant, sustainable community.
Aiyana Kane | Co-Owner, The Burrow
Being a place where our community can access good, hearty and nourishing food is at the heart of why we opened The Burrow, so affordability is a big topic for us. This period of high inflation has felt like a test of our values, inspiring us to get creative in finding ways to make tasty dishes with affordable ingredients. We recently launched two new items to combat inflation: ‘The Penny Burrito’ is only $10, and ‘The Willow Brunch Bowl’ is only $11. With these changing times, we have had to raise prices much more sharply than ever before, but we maintain our commitment to always having a few very accessible dishes on our menu, without compromising on quality or satisfaction.
Maria Huynh | Co-Owner, CHAUveggie
Passing the buck over to the customer is difficult because we worry about no longer being affordable. When we increase our menu prices we do so as minimally as possible and only because our business needs to survive. We have reduced staffing so that we can pay our skeleton crew higher wages. We will also be reducing our menu size, with the plan to simplify our business. We hope this will give us time to be able to also manage life outside of work, such as growing veggies and DIY projects, rather than hiring them out. We have also offered short-term interest-free loans for staff to help with housing or with transportation purchases. As a business, we take in more of a loss to help our staff to live a little more comfortably so that they can also focus at work, rather than stressing about where to live or how to pay their bills.
We also work with Little Mountain Neighbourhood House Society to make sure we can provide seniors in the community with nourishing food within their budget. If they only have $10 per person, we will ask what their favourites are or what they are looking for, and make smaller portions to make it affordable and offer variety for our guests. We even add in old favourites, such as our papaya salad, or make mini sandwiches or even customize platters to be able to work with fresh produce that is in season or affordable, to create something for everyone to enjoy.
The Responses: Affordability for Industry Workers?
This is definitely an ongoing concern. One way that our industry could take better care of each other is by offering more affordable industry nights to fill tables on slower evenings. Industry gatherings and forums can help keep staff connected and sharing ideas, but raising menu prices seems to be inevitable if we want the places we love to dine at be able to afford to keep their doors open. It’s a bit of a “chicken and egg” problem: paying staff more means charging more to guests, which means staff (as guests) pay more to dine out… When will it end?!
I think the issue of people working in restaurants not being able to dine in them is an ongoing issue, both past and present. Restaurant wages have always been – and, in most cases, still are – low. Myself (and most cooks I’ve worked with) have always had to save money in order to dine at “fancier” restaurants. Industry discounts or the occasional free plate being sent out to fellow industry workers is one way that we help each other through it, but this is not the case all the time. With inflation and food costs soaring, it’s getting harder and harder for restaurants to give discounts. Costs are high and margins are low.
Are hospitality workers concerned with dining out right now? I think they are more concerned with paying their rent and basic living costs. This is why we have to raise the prices in order to pay our staff properly – because working in hospitality should be a profession, not a side job.
We try to help by giving our employees 50% off their entire meal if they come in on their day off (and 50% off food, on shift). We also do frequent tastings, which helps them to experience our menu firsthand. Additionally, we offer an industry discount to those who work in hospitality, and we are working on an incentive program in which we encourage our employees to go out to eat at other restaurants on Old Bird’s dime, to help them grow and stay connected with the community.