The foodservice sector of the Greater Montreal produce industry held its collective breath for three months between March and June and has been trying to catch it ever since.
After being prohibited from all on-premises dining March 22, Quebec’s restaurants were allowed to reopen at 50% capacity June 15, while Montreal’s eateries had to wait until June 22.
“I have two major clients who supply radishes to restaurants,” said Yannick Guérin, local-produce sales representative of Les Jardins A. Guérin & Fils, Sherrington, Quebec.
“One stopped buying directly from me to buy all from a wholesaler because he didn’t want to bother me for a couple boxes. The other was buying one-third to one-fourth less than what he bought from me last year for his restaurants.”
Besides being the peak time for local produce, summer is major tourism season in the Montreal metro area.
“It’s still a very, very slow market for hotels and restaurants here in Montreal. We’re very big on tourism, hotels and restaurants — and it’s pretty empty. Thank goodness we have retail markets,” said Jocelyn St-Denis, executive director of Quebec Produce Growers Association.
There was no Canadian Grand Prix in June. The Montreal International Jazz Festival, scheduled for June and July, became a July-long online event. Also normally in July, the Just for Laughs Festival was rescheduled as a virtual event in October.
These events attract millions of tourists, whose business foodservice suppliers depend on, said Andrew Southwood, owner of Montreal-based Fresh Xpressions, a consulting agency that helps companies with business strategy and development using a sustainability lens.
“In Montreal, initially it was quite a shock with restaurants all closed down. Many growers had to find alternative ways to sell products, same as across all North America,” Southwood said.
According to the 2020 second quarter survey report by Restaurants Canada, 52% of restaurants that were open either for on-premises or takeout and delivery were operating at a loss in June. Another 20% were just breaking even.
However, the share of respondents feeling “very pessimistic” about their business over the next 12 months dropped from 51% in the first quarter down to 26% in the second quarter.
Southwood also managed two cabin redesign projects for Air Canada until June, and said the airports were ghost towns, and subsequently, demand for on-board catering plummeted.
Hundreds of airport employees were laid off in Montreal and Quebec City. Air Canada, the country’s largest airline, laid off 50% to 60% of its workforce, or about 20,000 employees, according to local media reports.
“We suffered particularly because government closed the borders, and there was nobody flying in,” Southwood said. “It’s sad. It’s hard to determine the multiplied effect in the supplier system.”
Now that foodservice operators are slowly opening back up, six in 10 survey respondents told Restaurant Canada that their employees refused to return to work and would keep getting Canada’s emergency wage benefits.
On July 17, the Canadian government announced an extension until Dec. 19 of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, along with changes to the program. The rate of the subsidy, which was until now 75%, will be calculated from September on the basis of the company’s losses and will be declining.
Southwood recently dined at one of the trendy Lov locations, a haute vegan restaurant, and learned it had returned to about 40-50% of its pre-pandemic business, but its takeout and delivery business has risen “dramatically.”
“We have a very strong outdoor restaurant culture in Montreal,” he said.