The State of Vancouver Restaurants at the Beginning of 2019

A few thoughts on where the market sits as we begin the new year.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash
There’s so much to discuss with regards to the Vancouver restaurant industry. What’s new? Who’s doing what? What trends have taken off and why the hell are celebrity chefs David Chang and Guy Fieri in town on the same week? Some of these questions are easy to answer. Others, not so much. Nevertheless, it’s a new year and as many of us ponder to keep up with our new year’s resolutions, (good luck with that), I’ve decided that I wanted to take a quick snapshot of where I see the industry today. Just a few ideas and topics which I feel are and will be relevant to the community in 2019. Enjoy!

Company Structure

The casual dining market is thriving, as evidenced in this Scout release in September. Popular restaurant Cinara was closed by its owners, not because it wasn’t doing well, but more so because their casual second restaurant, Autostrada, was doing much better. What this says is two things:

  1. customers want a cheaper, more affordable experience.
  2. the casual fine dining sphere could be in trouble

I want to stress could, because there are a few in this category who are doing just fine. Chief among them is St. Lawrence, The Mackenzie Room, Kissa Tanto, Savio Volpe and newcomer, Como Taperia.

This then presents an interesting question: were other factors at play regarding Cinara’s closure? I only ask because in another Scout release a similar tone was brought forth by another popular Italian joint, yet in this restaurant’s case the owner chose to close and sell versus downgrade.

Campagnolo Roma was a great restaurant. I ate there several times. It was in a burgeoning neighbourhood up in Hastings Sunrise. But as owner Robert Belcham detailed, his closing had more to do with rising costs and staffing versus dealing with being more of special occasion spot as was the case with Cinara. In the Scout article, there’s a key line I’d like you to ponder.

It states: “…rather than increasing prices…”

Minimum wage and city taxes are both going up again this year, which means running a restaurant won’t be getting any easier. I’m thinking someone saw the writing on the wall. But then, was his move a foreshadowing scenario for the restaurant community at large? Part of me thinks this is a strong possibility. If you’re charging $27 for a dish, and now you need to charge $30, just the optics of such a change can sway cash strapped diners. Autostrada has found success, much in the same way Yellow Tail did 25 years ago when it took the wine market by storm with its $12.99 Shiraz; their success had hit upon the ideal sweet spot for consumers. For Vancouver restaurants, it’s starting to look as if the $17 — $24 range is kinda where we stand.

Again, Cinara was still relatively busy, yet, it was still more expensive than Autostrada, which caused its owners to have to reevaluate their business plan. Either adapt and go with what works (Autostrada’s model) or raise prices and be slower throughout the week. Sometimes running a successful and smart business isn’t enough.

Autostrada 2.0 will most likely become a big hit. I’m excited to check it out. But what do newbies such as Verre and Dachi do? How should they lean? Up or down?

That’s the line any restaurateur struggles with when they open shop. How precious is my ego? Give them what they want or do what I want and hope they come? The balance is seen everywhere and those who succeed at both are lucky. I’m especially excited to visit Verre and Dachi. I know some of the individuals involved. Young, enthusiastic and full of promise. It’s what any diner should desire when looking for that great new spot.

But there’s a way to do things, and knowing where you line up is key to ultimate success. Price too high and you might scare them away, especially if the food isn’t up to snuff. Too low, and you risk coming across as cheap, and try as you might, first impressions are everything in this business. Pedigree, unfortunately for those who don’t have much of it, oftentimes has more to do with future success than one might realize. Savio Volpe succeeded because Paul Grunberg owned L’Abattoir. Kissa Tanto ran away with all the awards because of Bao Bei. Como is doing mightily well because Shaun Layton ran L’Abattoir’s bar program for years and Frankie Harrington was a co-owner in Meat and Bread. This is not to say these restaurants aren’t pushing amazing concepts, because they are, but what it does say is how tricky the market for success can really be, especially for some just breaking in, or even those who’ve been at it for awhile.

The Delivery Age

2018 saw the emergence of a new restaurant model: the daytime cafe/nighttime bar. Popularized locally a few years back by the duo from Birds and the Beets, this new way of maximizing a space with varying businesses showcases the creative ways in which restaurateurs see the market advancing as we begin the next decade. This new model also hits on how the delivery age has started to affect the entire restaurant community.

Annalena’s, Their There/Hundy and Birds and the Beets, Hunnybee/Soap are market corrections to the rise of Uber Eats/Skip the Dishes/Foodora.

The evolution of this trend will come to dominate and dictate many of the new restaurants of this city’s future. The online food delivery market is set to grow by 13.8% in 2019, as per figures from statista. Currently a large percentage of this still comes from the Restaurant-to-Consumer model, with Platform-to-Consumer only accounting for less than a quarter of sales.

This essentially means that most of the food delivery which is done in Canada and Vancouver is still of the takeout pizza variety. But with the growth of Foodora, Skip the Dishes and Uber Eats in the market, more and more people will be, and have been, gravitating towards using these services versus going out for dinner. As the advancement of handheld technology and the internet revolution pushes us even closer towards doing almost everything online, this new market will have a big hand in how we look to dine in 2019 and onward.

If a 20% loss in revenue is felt by many restaurateurs, the industry as a whole will change. Some restaurants will close, many will join and start delivering their most popular items, and some will adapt and open virtual restaurants. Cutting edge thinking will be key to survival here, which is why you’ll see more unique concepts popping up. If you have a space, maximizing its potential will prove critical as the market shifts itself more online.

Cafes and Breweries Rule the Land — For Now

In 2018, the following cafes opened in Vancouver:

Collette Grand Cafe, Their There, The Garden, Our Town Cafe, Matchstick (Richards St.), Jammer Cafe, Hunnybee, Kafka’s Coffee (W. Hastings) and La Tana— with Livia and Harken Coffee slated to open soon.

I believe it’s safe to say, that true to its preconceived perception of being a coffee addicted town, Vancouverites love their cafes.

Akin to this new found abundance of cafes, is Vancouver’s saturation of breweries. By my count, there are roughly 23–27 breweries in Vancouver (this fluctuation comes if you want to add North Vancouver and Burnaby into the mix). Since liquor primaries have become extremely difficult to attain, hence the reason Vancouver has very few straight cocktail bars, opening a brewery became the next best option. They’re also hip and profitable which is enticing for many would be entrepreneurs.

This cycle should slow down though, as a glut of both businesses looks imminent. But they do present the future of hospitality in this city. Less staff. More counter service. Grab and go options. Efficiency.

I wouldn’t be shocked if the next trend we see will be the growth of urban wineries. With the Okanagan on our doorstep, seems only natural many of the popular wineries out there would look to expand and open tasting rooms in Vancouver. If I were them, I certainly would.

Chef Shortage

This is still the biggest issue facing Vancouver restaurants. As I wrote back in 2017, no one’s yet to solve this problem. Here’s a snippet of what I detailed back then:

Here’s a depiction of the sad fate many chefs face today.
Let’s say you’re 22, and you decide that you want to cook for a living. You enter a culinary school for 8 months and learn basic techniques. Then you go work at Earls for 2 years where you get some real on the job training doing prep, making dishes in real time while also learning a bit of how to run a line and so forth. All-in-all you’re making $13 per hour plus a bit of tip out. You’re not broke, but you’re definitely just barely getting by. But you’re young, you love working with your friends, and hey, you go out for beers every night, which is nice.
But now you’re 25 and you’ve decided that you’d like to go somewhere where you can learn something more. So you get on at L’Abattoir, a kitchen putting out delicious awesome food. You’re stoked but the hours are long (12hr shifts/5 days a week) and the pay isn’t great ($130 per day — I’m guessing by the way, I have no idea what L’Abattoir pays their employees), but you’re learning and that’s what counts. You do this for 2 years wherein by the end you’ve risen up the ranks to Sous Chef— but now you’re 27. You’re still broke and your girlfriend wants you to get serious with your life. So you take the head chef job up at Cin Cin. It pays decent (55k per year), and now you’re running your own crew, but you’re not really learning anything new and you’re definitely not saving a lot either.
“Fuck, Vancouver is expensive!”, you find yourself lamenting over and over.
You do this for a few years, but now you’re 31. You’re not so young anymore, and you’re finding yourself wondering, what’s next? Do you either find some investors to open up your own place, which is really hard and very expensive and a total risk that you might not be up to doing, or do you stay at Cin Cin? Not totally sure what you should do, you begin to wonder: Was this why I became a cook? To put out pasta?
The sad fate for many is that it’s a tough go and often very unrewarding. What Joel Wattanbe has achieved at Kissa Tanto/Bao Bei (he won Vancouver Magazine’s Best Chef award in 2017) is rare and in a way, lucky. For every Joel there needs to be a Tanis Ling (his business partner, she owns Bao Bei and Kissa Tanto) next to him as well — that and a lot of money, and most don’t have one, let alone both.
In the end, a simple question must be asked: If you go to medical school for years and become a doctor you KNOW that one day you’ll be making a lot of money. It’s a fact. But if you slave away for 12hrs in a kitchen at L’Abattoir, what are you guaranteed? Nothing!
Most of us work 8hr days and that’s enough. If you’re going to work a lot more, it better be worth it.
It’s not because people all of sudden hate to cook that there’s a shortage of chefs; it’s because they’re eyes have been opened. The dream isn’t real anymore. That’s the reality, and it’s one all of us will soon have to swallow.

Some restaurants are trying to find ways to fix this issue as some have begun to offer more competitive pay, benefits and higher percentages of tip out, but unfortunately there’s only so much they can do as restaurants can only charge so much. We want cheap food and it’s as simple as that. I’m not sure how you remedy this problem, but it’s a big one nonetheless.

2019 — the year of the veggie burger!

As the year unfolds, I’m going to be exploring these topics in more detail. Stay tuned for updates.