A woman wears a protective face mask as she walks past a opened restaurant patio on Granville Street in Vancouver, Wednesday, May 20, 2020. The pandemic may serve as an opportunity for the restaurant industry to innovate in order to avoid closures as public health measures limit the sale of booze and erode already thin profit margins, say addiction and business experts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Focus on innovation, not alcohol, key to survival for restaurants: experts

Restaurants and bars have fought the restriction of a 10 p.m. stop on alcohol sales in British Columbia

The pandemic may serve as an opportunity for the restaurant industry to innovate in order to avoid closures as public health measures limit the sale of booze and erode already thin profit margins, say addiction and business experts.

Dr. Rupi Brar said the industry has a chance to pivot in ways that satisfy consumer demand while considering its heavy dependence on high markups on alcohol as well as the negative consequences associated with it.

“We know that the production and marketing and distribution of alcohol does create employment and generate income, but the question is, at what cost?” said Brar, an addiction medicine specialist and consultant in substance use disorders at St. Paul’s and Surrey Memorial hospitals in Metro Vancouver.

She said harms related to alcohol use amount to about $14 billion a year, including for health care.

Restaurants and bars have fought the restriction of a 10 p.m. stop on alcohol sales in British Columbia and similar limits elsewhere in the country, but many have come up with new ways to make money and keep much of their staff employed.

Brar said she and her colleagues nationally have noticed a sharp spike in alcohol consumption during the pandemic, with some of it related to anxiety, including among people who have returned to drinking after years of abstinence.

“There’s no better time than now to really start to think about ways that we can mitigate these harms but still be able to provide access to alcohol,” she said.

Tim Stockwell, scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, said alcohol sales at liquor stores have already been maintained as an essential service but provincial health officers’ decisions to limit sales hours at bars and restaurants are justified.

“It’s a complex argument and a balance is needed,” he said of the economic and health factors linked to alcohol. “Bars are like petri dishes for the spread of this virus. Alcohol policy needs to be a priority to protect our public health and safety.

“Clearly, businesses will suffer. It is a reality and they do need sympathy. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of compromising the health of the population and continuing to place a burden, an unnecessary burden, on the health-care system.”

Stockwell said the centre has received funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada to collect alcohol sales data during the pandemic to determine whether consumption from liquor stores and premises including bars and restaurants has fluctuated based on various measures across the country.

Targeted restrictions of alcohol sales may be needed in order to preserve businesses that are financially suffering, he said.

“We have to have a suite of policies that have overall beneficial effects of reducing viral spread and protecting precious health-care resources.”

READ MORE: B.C. to shut down nightclubs, banquet halls; limit late-night alcohol sales at bars

Mark von Schellwitz, vice-president of Restaurants Canada for the western region, said he agrees with Ontario and Quebec’s regulations to limit alcohol sales only in areas where COVID-19 cases are increasing.

He said a similar policy should be adopted in B.C., where Dr. Bonnie Henry has resisted that move and closed nightclubs and banquet halls in early September as COVID-19 cases started rising.

“Some of our members are saying, ‘Why can’t we have a targeted approach by region as well?’ ” he said.

Von Schellwitz said that unlike parties and other gatherings that may account for the spread of the disease, bars and restaurants offer a controlled, safe environment where staff are trained to follow pandemic regulations, such as physical distancing.

Limitations on the number of diners in establishments have forced the industry to innovate in several ways including selling meal kits of raw ingredients, establishing so-called ghost kitchens where meals are cooked and delivered and creating more patio dining, he said.

While takeout delivery has also increased, costs of up to 35 per cent from third-party apps have been a big concern, von Schellwitz added.

“Whether you’re located in Alberta, Ontario, B.C., all restauranteurs are doing whatever they can to help their particular business survive,” he said.

READ MORE: Nightclub closures, liquor sale limits a ‘punch in the gut,’ B.C. industry group says

The industry wants the B.C. government to permanently continue pandemic-related policies, such as the wholesale pricing of alcohol for licensed establishments and allowing alcohol sales with delivery orders.

The B.C. New Democrats promised to keep both changes in the release of its election platform on Tuesday.

Prof. Jarrett Vaughan, who specializes in the hospitality industry at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder school of business, said innovation during and after the pandemic will be key for the restaurant industry, which already has a high failure rate.

Some establishments have previously tried to generate revenue by increasing the cost of particular drinks based on high demand on a given evening, he said, adding that pricing model has not become widespread though it illustrates a focus on alcohol as a moneymaker.

The service offered by restaurants is the draw for diners, who may be keen to gradually return for that experience rather than other innovations, Vaughan said.

“By and large, when you offer a service, it’s really the personal touch that people are looking for. And that is a very difficult thing to innovate beyond because you can’t take the human element of out of it. And the human element is very expensive.”

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusFood & Dining

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

There were 410 COVID-19 cases recorded in Alberta Wednesday. (File photo)
Alberta records 410 COVID-19 cases Wednesday

Central zone dropped to 160 active cases

Shaun Isaac, owner of Woodchucker Firewood in Trochu, is awaiting a new shipment during a firewood shortage in the province. All of the wood he has left is being saved for long-time customers who need it to heat their homes. (Contributed photo).
Firewood shortage in central Alberta caused by rising demand, gaps in supply

‘I’ve said “No” to more people than ever’: firewood seller

file photo
Maskwacis RCMP investigate pedestrian fatality

Collision on Highway 2A causing fatality still under investigation.

Shaela Dansereau/ The Pipestone Flyer
City of Wetaskiwin cases rapidly climbing

City of Wetaskiwin reporting 11 active cases of COVID-19

Royal Alexandra Hospital front-line workers walk a picket line after walking off the job in a wildcat strike in Edmonton, on Monday, October 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta labour board orders health-care staff who walked off the job to go back to work

Finance Minister Travis Toews said in a news release that he was pleased with the labour board’s decision

Husky Energy logo is shown at the company’s annual meeting in Calgary on May 5, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Husky pipeline spills 900,000 litres of produced water in northwestern Alberta

The energy regulator says environmental contractors are at the site

A raccoon paid a visit to a Toronto Tim Hortons on Oct. 22, 2020. (shecallsmedrew/Twitter)
Who are you calling a trash panda? Raccoon takes a shift at Toronto Tim Hortons

Tim Hortons said animal control was called as soon they saw the surprise visitor

Sharon Hickin, general manager of the Days Inn Sylvan Lake and the new Lake House Diner, poses for a photo outside the new restaurant. Photo by Megan Roth/Sylvan Lake News
Pandemic puts extra hurdles in place for new Sylvan Lake businesses

Over the past seven months numerous new businesses have opened in Sylvan Lake, despite the pandemic

Rachel Notley, leader of Alberta’s official Opposition, speaks in Edmonton on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. Notley says the government needs to sharply ramp up the number of contact tracers if it wants to get a handle on the rising number of COVID-19 cases. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta Opposition calls for more COVID-19 contact tracers as case numbers rise

Alberta has about 800 tracers, and chief medical health officer Dr. Hinshaw says more are being recruited

Royal Alexandra Hospital front-line workers walk a picket line after walking off the job in a wildcat strike in Edmonton, on Monday, October 26, 2020. Hospital and health-care workers who staged a one-day illegal walkout returned to work Tuesday while politicians swapped recriminations and accusations in the house over the dispute. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta health staff return to work, surgeries resume after one-day walkout

AHS estimated 157 non-emergency surgeries, most of them in Edmonton, had to be postponed as a result of the walkout

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes his way to provide an update on the COVID pandemic in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. Canada has reached a grim milestone in the COVID-19 pandemic, surpassing 10,000 novel coronavirus deaths. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Alberta COVID deaths pushes Canada past milestone of 10,000 deaths

Canada crossed the threshold of 5,000 deaths on May 12, a little over two months after the first was reported

Cases in Ponoka (East Ponoka County) as of Oct. 27. (alberta.ca)
Diagnosed cases of COVID-19 at three Ponoka businesses

Town ‘strongly encouraging’ residents to wear non-medical masks in public

Most Read