British Columbia

Leading catering company's bankruptcy after 33 years reveals industry in crisis due to COVID-19

A major Vancouver-based catering company is declaring bankruptcy, and others have made major pivots to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Caterers have laid off dozens of staff as they seek other ways to make money following event cancellations

The usual bustle has been absent from catering kitchens, as event contracts have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

For other caterers in the Vancouver region, the news on Wednesday that the market leader, Culinary Capers, is declaring bankruptcy came as a shock.

The company said in a statement that after 33 years in business, the COVID-19 pandemic and public health measures issued to reduce the spread of the virus meant it was no longer able to operate using its traditional business model.

"It's devastating — I'm close to a lot of the people on the Culinary [Capers] team," said Shannon Boudreau, director of sales and events with The Lazy Gourmet — another of the biggest catering companies in B.C.

"They're shook. They didn't see it coming," said Boudreau.

She said The Lazy Gourmet began feeling the impact of COVID-19 on its business in January, when Lunar New Year events began to be cancelled. By March, there was a catastrophic week in which almost every event was cancelled for the foreseeable future.

The company and other caterers trying to survive looked for quick ways to shift their business.

And there were deep layoffs. According to Boudreau, The Lazy Gourmet went from a staff of about 160 to four people. 

'There really is nothing'

New business ideas to keep the lights on included putting the company on Doordash and Uber Eats to sell meals for delivery, weekly dinner menus, a grocery-style service and even virtual cooking and cocktail classes with partially prepared ingredients.

The Lazy Gourmet's delivery offerings, including the 'vegan Middle Eastern tacos,' are available through services including Doordash and Uber Eats. (The Lazy Gourmet)

But despite the weeks of hustle, the bottom line is still looking grim.

"I don't want to sugarcoat it, because the events industry is hit hard. We're about 95 per cent down in sales," said Boudreau.

For James Thornley, president of Peake of Catering, the early days of the pandemic were equally challenging.

"The weddings are all gone, the contracts that we had are gone, there really is nothing," said Thornley.

Peake of Catering had about 80 people on the payroll before the pandemic. At the lowest point since then, there were as few as seven, though the company has managed to find a niche and increase to about 12 now.

"We're producing a different product now," said Thornley.

They contacted their entire database of clients and managed to make some connections with B.C. Housing and other service providers looking for packaged meals. The company is now producing about 5,000 frozen meals each week.

Thornley said they had to get a huge freezer for their East Vancouver facility, and there was some trial-and-error on the packaging, but the new business model — though lacking the upscale flourishes of some of the catering gigs — is sustainable.

The Peake of Catering quickly shifted to producing about 5,000 frozen meals per week to deliver to B.C. Housing and other service providers after the pandemic led to the cancellation of all event contracts. (James Thornley)

But revenue is still about 50 per cent lower than normal, and the vast majority of the workforce is still out of work.

"We dig for other business every single day, and it's just not there," he said

50-person gathering limit

Both Thornley and Boudreau agree that the public health order capping gatherings at 50 people is a major factor limiting the return of catering contracts.

Thornley has wondered why large restaurants have been given the ability to serve more than 50 customers, space permitting, when there are large venues that could similarly be used for catered events again.

According to Boudreau, the 50-person limit is as much a signal to the public that things aren't safe enough for a return to normal as it is a business-limiting measure.

And she said most live events that would be catered aren't like restaurants — they're often smaller groups where it's all about mingling.

She's hoping to see a rise in micro-events in the coming months, as corporate clients look for ways to entertain without risking large groups. But she said gone are the days of the buffet, family-style meals and charcuterie boards.


Do you have more to add to the story? Email rafferty.baker@cbc.ca

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

Clarifications

  • In an earlier version of this story, James Thornley estimated his business had fallen by about 30 per cent. Thornley has since revised his estimate and now believes business in May actually dropped by about 50 per cent.
    May 26, 2020 2:00 PM PT

About the Author

Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.

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