An inside look into Vancouver’s restaurant industry during COVID-19

The Peak interviews a restaurateur, a baker, and an entrepreneur

By: Sara Wong, Arts & Culture Editor

Now more than ever, the restaurant and food service industry needs support. The Peak interviewed three Vancouver culinary leaders, working in various sectors of the industry, to uncover — firsthand — how small, local businesses are managing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Restaurateur: Paul Grunberg

Photo courtesy of Paul Grundberg

Being the owner and operator of Vancouver’s Savio Volpe, Pepino’s Spaghetti House, and Caffè La Tana, Paul Grunberg is busy on any given day. Throw in a global pandemic, and the job becomes even more demanding. In an interview with The Peak, Grunberg discussed what the challenges of running a small business during COVID-19 have been so far and what the future of restaurants looks like.

“It’s obviously been stressful and there’s been a lot of pressure,” Grunberg began. “You worry about the day-to-day right now, but you’re also now worrying about the pandemic [ . . . ] because the last thing you want is [for] you or one of your associates to get COVID.” 

While this is a problem that all workplaces are currently facing, Grunberg pointed out that restaurants are suffering more so than others because a majority of business depends on people being able to dine out and feeling safe in doing so. 

At the same time, he emphasized how fortunate he feels to be living and working in BC. A veteran in the hospitality industry, Grunberg believes that our province’s restaurants “have made as safe an environment as possible.” 

He credited organizations like WorkSafeBC and public health leaders such as Dr. Bonnie Henry and Adrian Dix for providing “a really clear roadmap as to how to be successful in this pandemic.” In addition, he noted that, federally, they have received “a ton of support with the wage subsidy, with the rent subsidy, [and with] CERB.”

On a municipal level, however, Grunberg felt less content. In May 2020, the Vancouver Sun reported on the obstacles Caffè La Tana was facing from the City of Vancouver in obtaining a liquor license. While the federal and provincial governments were working on ways to minimize the damage COVID-19 caused to businesses’ bottom lines, which included easing restrictions around alcohol sales, the City of Vancouver wanted Caffè La Tana to undergo a rezoning and re-development process before being able to serve wine. 

When asked if the process of getting their liquor license was still ongoing, Grunberg said, “Much to my chagrin, it is. It’s actually shocking that we are still in search of this liquor license. We have appeased the City of Vancouver with respect to our application, we’ve got a unanimous vote from Council [ . . . ] and now, we are getting glued up again with more paperwork, permits, drawings, and, in my opinion, it is a joke.”

Continuing on, the restaurateur proclaimed that if he had known from the start how costly the procedure was going to be, both mentally and financially, he would not have gone through with it.

With more than 20 years of experience in the restaurant industry, Grunberg is used to hurdles. However, dealing with COVID-19 has proven to be the biggest one thus far. 

“It’s just a challenging time for everyone. It’s a challenging time to be anything, whether it’s a restaurant business [or not,] navigating today and tomorrow and next week [ . . . ] have been difficult,” he said. “But, you know, myself personally, I’m getting through it with a lot of perseverance and optimism.”

Grunberg also had a hopeful outlook on what the industry will look like post-pandemic. 

“I think that there’s going to be everlasting scars and trauma from COVID-19. I think we’re going to be dealing with, post-pandemic, all sorts of new ailments with respect to business,” he admitted. 

“But do I think that restaurants are going to thrive post-pandemic? Absolutely.”

 

The Baker: Lisa Beecroft

Photo courtesy of Lisa Beecroft

Lisa Beecroft is a force to be reckoned with. She is the co-owner of Port Moody’s Gabi & Jules and Caffé Divano, the latter of which also has locations in Burnaby and Coquitlam; she is a founding member of the non-profit Shop Local Port Moody, which further advocates for small, local businesses; and she is currently co-chair of the Presidents Group, a BC organization that champions inclusive employment practices. 

In an interview with The Peak, Beecroft, an SFU alum, described how she has been navigating her businesses through COVID-19 and discussed why making workplaces more accessible for neurodiverse people is imperative.

At the start of the pandemic, Beecroft went from having 71 employees to one. “We had, at that point, shut down the three Divanos and we didn’t know [ . . . ] how long businesses were going to stay shut for,” she began. 

Backtracking, Beecroft explained that the Caffé Divanos closed one by one based on how staff were feeling. 

“We had some older staff at the Port Moody location who were feeling quite uneasy early on, so they shut down first. And we tried to keep Coquitlam open for as long as we could because we had some staff members there that weren’t eligible for any benefits,” she elaborated.

The focus then shifted to Gabi & Jules. They shut down for a short period of time to transition their business 100% online and organize a schedule for pick-up orders. 

“Everything now went through our website, which we had to madly update with items; and what we did is we took back all of our inventory from Divano and just tried to sell everything,” Beecroft said. 

Timing-wise, Beecroft’s business hit a sweet spot. 

“Everyone was baking bread [ . . . ] we sold an obscene amount of yeast,” the Gabi & Jules co-owner reflected. “And we were well-positioned because we already have packaged items at the bakery, we had all the things needed to package everything [too].”

With business steadily increasing again, Beecroft was able to bring bakers back “pretty much every week.” She was also able to re-hire some of the front of house team, which became responsible for operating pick-ups and assisting with packaging. By summer, when both the caffés and bakery could offer reduced seating (in the case of Gabi & Jules, this meant picnic tables in the parking lot), Beecroft had been able to hire back almost all of her staff.

“It wasn’t until things started to open up a little bit more that I really got an appreciation for how successful we really were on what we had done, relative to others who didn’t seem to pivot as quickly,” Beecroft shared. 

She credited her dedicated and efficient staff, as well as the public rallying behind small, local businesses, for Caffé Divano and Gabi & Jules’ relative success during the pandemic.

That being said, Beecroft also emphasized that her businesses’ pandemic journey has not always been positive. “We’ve been at this for a very long time and there’s been different times that have been incredibly challenging and stressful [ . . . ] what’s unique about COVID is just so much of it was out of our control,” she said. 

In some ways, that continues to be the case. 

“Now, there’s the new added stress of customers not being happy about the restrictions and the abuse that some of our staff are taking, which is incredibly frustrating for us because we can’t be everywhere to intervene with that and it’s very disheartening to see,” Beecroft remarked.

Pre-pandemic, about 30% of Gabi & Jules’ workforce was comprised of individuals on the autism spectrum. 

“We’re an inclusive employer, that’s a big part of what we’re all about, [but] unfortunately that has probably been the most challenging aspect of our business to rebuild,” Beecroft reported. “I was very sensitive early on, and continue to be, with everyone’s mental health and how everyone on the team was managing; and some of our folks on the spectrum require a little bit more patience and a little bit more bandwidth in terms of managing, and I was really aware of not wanting to add more to their plate when some of them were just struggling to get themselves to work and be able to continue to function.”

Beecroft, who has a daughter on the autism spectrum, knows all too well about the cracks in the system for supporting neurodiverse folks. Speaking for children with autism, Beecroft explained that right now “there’s no working with agencies that might be able to support you when you’re out of school [ . . . ] so essentially when these kids graduate they’re falling off a cliff.” 

That is part of what inspired Beecroft to make her businesses inclusive employers. 

“You’ve got one in 54 kids now, I think, that are diagnosed with autism. That’s a lot of kids that are going to grow up, and in 18–20 years, they’re going to be looking for work. There needs to be opportunity for them,” she said emphatically. “I try to be a really vocal advocate for this one issue, but it’s part of a greater issue, which is just recognizing that everybody has value.”

 

The Entrepreneur: Marie Grapé

Photo courtesy of Marie Grape

During the pandemic, the demand for meal kits has skyrocketed. For Marie Grapé, who co-founded and officially launched Vancouver’s plant-based MANNA|Sacred Meals in November 2020, this came as a relief.

“Never having launched a business before, let alone during a pandemic, MANNA has been my biggest challenge and learning curve,” Grapé said in an interview with The Peak

“I had left my last employer of 9 years a few months prior to the pandemic so when COVID hit [ . . . ] I questioned my career [choices] and how this would affect the future of MANNA. [I felt] a lot of self-inflicted pressure to ensure I [was] making the best decision not just for the business, but all involved.”

With none of the initial COVID-19 benefits available to her and no other job prospects, Grapé poured all of her energy into MANNA|Sacred Meals. 

“Being a subscription ready-made meal delivery service with an extensive sterilization process for our returned packaging, we have been able to adapt to our new normal while also ensuring the safety of our customers,” Grapé said.

The decision for MANNA to sell only plant-based meals came from Grapé’s personal experiences. 

“Having a Filipino-Canadian background has influenced my high meat, high sugar, and high fat diet; eating plant-based was not introduced to me until later when I felt compelled to defy traditional medicine and normalize my autoimmune disease through transitioning to majority plant-based eating,” the head chef shared. “I’m happy to share that my lab results have remained positive since this change.”

Grapé added that watching documentaries “on the environmental benefits of plant-based eating” and seeing “the excessive consumption of unethically sourced meat” also influenced the direction MANNA took. 

“MANNA is driven to help people protect their most sacred resources — time, their health, and the environments that they call home,” Grapé said. 

With that in mind, The Peak asked Grapé if MANNA aims to reach students, and she immediately said yes. 

“We believe that being a student takes a lot of time and hard work [ . . . ] we want to help students feel nourished and focused while also supporting their busy lifestyle by saving time with the meal prep,” Grapé continued. 

As for the food, Grapé noted that “each recipe [MANNA] offer[s] has been run through the gauntlet to ensure that it is nutritionally balanced while offering full and satisfying flavour.” MANNA works with local chefs and a team of nutritionists in order to ensure the best meals are produced. As an added bonus, customers can prepare most of the meals in about ten minutes.

Looking towards a post-pandemic future, Grapé expressed a desire “to step away from being in the kitchen daily to personally meet our customers and show gratitude for their continued support.” She pointed out that this would help her further connect with the community and serve as an opportunity for her business to learn and grow. Grapé revealed plans to open kitchens in “high customer zones” — which are yet to be determined — in order to reduce gas emissions.

“It will be interesting to see how or if business changes for us post-COVID,” the MANNA co-founder said. “But we believe that the pandemic has taught us all to slow down, create more time with our loved ones, and have a heightened sense of awareness to make efforts to change for the better.”

On behalf of MANNA|Sacred Meals, Grapé would like to offer students a 25% discount, with an additional 20% if they subscribe using the code “SFU2021.” Visit their website, https://mannamenu.com/, to place orders.