JULIEN ARSENAULT THE CANADIAN PRESS
(Montreal) Having paid off debts for a few years after Joe Beef opened, David McMillan, one of the co-owners of Montreal’s popular restaurant, has spent the past decade putting money aside. The COVID-19 pandemic, which is eating away at this reserve, may leave only crumbs. Posted at 12:56 p.m. on April 13, 2020
In a sector where competition is fierce and margins are thin, even the finances of the best addresses prized by a foreign clientele suffer from the closures imposed by Quebec in order to curb the spread of coronavirus.
“I’m going to have lost some of the work I’ve done since Joe Beef opened 15 years ago,” McMillan said in a telephone interview. I’m going to lose 10 years of reserves. Meanwhile, all my hydro-Québec and bank bills continue to arrive on a regular basis. »
Co-owner of four establishments (Joe Beef, Liverpool House, Vin Papillon, McKiernan), the internationally renowned chef, who notably saw one of his addresses welcome former U.S. President Barack Obama during a visit in 2017 as part of a one-on-one meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, expects the crisis to return to the kitchen.
A late reopening, however, could turn everything upside down. And for some, it’s already too late, McMillan warns.
“If we’reer talking about June 1st, yes (we can reopen), but if you tell me November, that’s another story. I have friends who are calling me right now and are not going to reopen. »
For a sector that relies on discretionary consumer spending and also relies on the summer season, the restart promises to be painful. The rules of physical distancing, which will be in effect for several months to come, plunge the industry into the unknown.
At the Quebec Restaurant Association (ARQ), which counts independent owners and chains among its members, the authorities’ warning was greeted as a “shock wave,” said its vice-president of public affairs François Meunier, who anticipates “thousands of bankruptcies” in the sector.
“It’s already catastrophic right now and it’s going to be even more so,” he said, at the end of the phone. How can we maintain profitability? »
At Pastaga, Martin Juneau, who is also behind the Main Tricot and Cul-sec brands, was anticipating a temporary closure due to the pandemic. Quickly, the restaurant chef adapted his business model by turning to takeaways in order to retain a clientele.
While this allows the restaurant to keep its head above water, there have been negative impacts.
“The reality is that unfortunately 80 of our employees were sent on employment insurance. Without the inflow of money, there was no chance that we could reopen. All companies are in a precarious situation, but in catering, it’s even worse. »
In Mr. Juneau’s view, it is difficult to think that customers will rush to restaurants as soon as containment measures are lifted.
With a tourist clientele that will not be there, the reputation of Montreal and Quebec in terms of gastronomy is likely to suffer, he believes.
“Unfortunately, I’m not super optimistic,” Juneau said. We were starting to make a name for ourselves. I do not know what the short-term future of catering is, but I do not think it is very rosy. »
The co-owner of Joe Beef is under no illusions: the international clientele will be virtually non-existent this year and the time when dozens of customers were craded in dining rooms is over, at least, in the medium term.
It is not tomorrow the day before that we should see boats full of tourists docking in Quebec, recalled Mr. Meunier, who was also concerned about the absence of other major events such as international congresses.
“Who brings high-end restaurants to life? he asked. Yes, we are epicureans and Quebecers like to eat well. But restaurateurs cannot survive if there are not, for example, American customers who come to spend with their stronger currency. »
Changes to come?
The menu will probably also have to be looked at, mcMillan said.
“We’re going to have to adapt to a financially massacred clientele,” he said. Everyone eats a slap. We will have to reopen in a more sober and affordable way. Rather than making a white asparagus soup with sturgeon and caviar, I’ll have as much fun making a carrot soup with sunflower seeds. »
On Mr Juneau’s side, the crisis will also result in a reassessment of the orientations of his various institutions. However, it is still too early to speculate on what will happen to the process.
Generally, in times of economic downturn, the supply of restaurateurs changes in order to adapt to demand, stressed the vice-president of public affairs of the ARQ.
Restoration in Quebec in a few figures (2018)
Some 230,000 workers
Profit margins of 4.4
Gross sales of $13.6 billion
(Source: Quebec Restaurant Association)