The Business of Food: Pleasures & Pains of the Restaurant Business

by Janice Henshaw – 

To operate a successful restaurant or café in 2023, you need to manage stress, have a great deal of courage and determination and be prepared to spend long hours away from home. According to Restaurants Canada, many restaurants have navigated brilliantly through Covid. Still, they are facing a “triple whammy” of inflation, labour shortages and Covid-related debt; about half of restaurants are unprofitable right now, compared to only 12% before the pandemic.”

In Sidney, I talked to three food-serving businesses to find out how they navigate these challenges.

Atelier by Matt Jackson, on Fifth Street, features French-inspired cuisine and is owned by chef Matt Jackson who previously worked at a Michelin Star Restaurant in England. Matt opened Atelier in November 2022. Farmers drop off fresh produce, and Matt designs his daily menu around seasonal vegetables and fruit, meat and fish. He loves having the freedom to create new dishes.

“Quantities are always hard to figure out; it’s a guessing game,” says Matt, who admits he is not that into technology. His partner Tara Holmes built the Atelier website and initiated “OpenTable,” a software program for customers which is easy to use and provides instantly confirmed online bookings.

I asked Matt if he had seen any episodes of The Bear. It’s a high-stress comedy/drama that takes place in a restaurant. Matt said yelling and stuff like that in a restaurant kitchen doesn’t work well; he experienced that managing style from a head chef in a previous job. At Atelier, Matt hopes people come in to enjoy a relaxing evening experience, never to be rushed. So no, what happens in The Bear doesn’t occur in Atelier. But being a chef/owner is not stress-free; Matt often works from eight in the morning until midnight and food costs have to be reviewed constantly.

Next, I visited Fish on Fifth, a restaurant I have enjoyed eating at for many years. Kitchen Manager Arnie Cavanagh says the restaurant has operated in Sidney for 27 years, a marvellous success story. The cooking staff works in the middle of the restaurant for all to see, and they prepare an amazing variety of goodies – from deep-fried pickles to soup and salad combos, wraps, fish and chips, fish tacos and burgers.

Fish on Fifth is very proactive about sourcing eco-friendly take-out supplies such as wood and bamboo, and of course, their famous fish and chips are wrapped first in newsprint (no ink) and then in regular newspapers.

Arnie says a large part of their success is due to their young staff’s loyalty and good work ethic, two of whom – Jonathan and Kelsen – are Arnie’s sons. New employees progress from clean-up and prep duties to serving tables and eventually cooking. Because they are multi-trained, they can swap jobs – go from cook to server or vice versa for a change of pace. All tips are shared, and everyone gives a hand where needed; they have a positive team attitude, which shows. “Margins are slim,” says Arnie, but they are very grateful to have weathered Covid.

Our third food business to visit is the lovely Quince Café at the foot of Beacon Avenue. Owner/Manager Courtney Thomas has operated her vegetarian café for seven years. One of their handwritten menus includes tomato lentil soup, a quiche, pasta salad, quinoa salad and a panini. The fresh pastries look delicious and a huge espresso machine from Italy offers every variety of coffee you can hope for. Fresh flowers and vegetables come from their farm.

Courtney must be creative in dealing with storage logistics in a small space, as well as rising food and general input costs. On the good side, she says her staff is excellent, and she enjoys the variety of her workday: “The time flies by.” She also appreciates her wonderful customers, especially loyal regulars who come in daily. Quince Café is only closed on Sunday, so Courtney, a former teacher, says her work never really stops and it’s hard to turn it off, but she loves operating her café.
I wish these dedicated and hard-working restaurant and café owners well; they support our community in many ways, and it’s a richer place because of them. May their profit margins increase, and dreams live on.

Photo by Leah Gray and shot on location at Atelier by Matt Jackson

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