N.S. restaurants say business conditions more challenging than during COVID – Halifax

While many COVID-19 restrictions are behind us, the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia says now is more challenging.

Getting people in the doors has been difficult for many food establishments, and continued increasing costs are a daunting reality.

Despite the doom and gloom, at least one restaurant is trying to see the bright side.

“The COVID loans are definitely an ongoing question and definitely keep you up at night,” says Brendan Doherty, the owner of the Old Triangle. “I’d say right now, food costs are by far the biggest concern. They just keep going up.”

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Also a chance is an earlier-than-expected minimum wage increase — rising to $15 per hour on Oct. 1 — and a looming excise tax hike for beer, wine and spirits coming April 1.

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Richard Alexander, the Atlantic Canada vice president of Restaurants Canada, says the increase amounts to 6.3 per cent. “The largest increase in 40 years, (it) adds about $36,000 in expenses to an average restaurant at a time when the industry just can’t bare it.”

“This year, we’re anticipating somewhere around, at least a seven per cent increase on general food costs right across the board to restaurants,” says Gordon Stewart, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia. “They need to reflect that price in their menu.”

Stewart says the COVID rebound was strong and consumer confidence came back, but inflationary pressures have put a damper on that. He goes as far to say that now is more challenging than pandemic restrictions because there are no supports for things like rent, wages, grants or loans — and there’s no short-term solution to the issues.

Those issues include the well-documented labour shortage. He says at full staff, Nova Scotia would have about 44,000 restaurant workers. Currently, there are about 27,000.

“We’re well short of [the number of people] we need,” Stewart says. “That compression of labour has also caused a compression in the amount of days you can be open for sales, which has caused a compression in how much profit you can make, and how much profit you can make is how long you stay in business.”

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Meanwhile, there are signs people are buying less and picking cheaper menu items.

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Still, Doherty, The Old Triangle owner, is trying to stay optimistic.

“There’s plenty of bad around, but there’s also a fair amount of good that I think we miss,” he says.

He says that includes the recent World Junior Hockey Championship in Halifax, the current Dine Around Halifax promotion, Burger week upcoming, and of course, St. Patrick’s Day.

Likewise, Stewart says there’s no education to become a restaurateur, so many owners are entrepreneurs who are trying to take it in stride by reducing how much they buy, shrinking menus and looking at staffing, while also pushing up wages and offering better benefits.

“But that entrepreneurial spirit is pretty strong,” he says. “It’s amazing when you’re pushed to the wall, how far you can push back sometimes.”

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