Calgary

'The unknowns are killing us': Restaurateurs say future is bleak for local dining, even post-pandemic

Lance Hurtubise has been through tough times before but nothing like this.

Lance Hurtubise says it could cost up to $60K to reopen each of his eight restaurants

Lance Hurtubise, president and CEO of Vintage Group, owns eight Calgary restaurants including the well-known Vintage Chophouse. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Lance Hurtubise has been through tough times before but nothing like this.

"It was the perfect storm. We lost the NHL playoffs, we lost the Stampede, oil has crashed," he said.

"You know, I don't know what we're coming back to. Stampede, especially, carried us through in the summer."

Hurtubise has been a central figure in Calgary's dining scene for decades.

He founded the Moxie's restaurant chain in the 1980s, and went on to form Vintage Group, which owns eight Calgary restaurants, including Vintage Chophouse, Township and Booker's BBQ and Crab shack. 

When the coronavirus pandemic forced non-essential businesses to close, Hurtubise laid off 230 staff throughout his eight restaurants. 

He said he has been able to bring some back to handle take-out services but calls it a Band-Aid solution.

"We're trying to put people back to work, we just want to break even and that's our goal. Waalflower and Chairman's are doing take-out but we've got six other restaurants that are sitting empty."

Vintage Chophouse Tavern has been temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

And reopening will take a toll, as well.

Hurtubise said it could cost up to $60,000 to reopen each restaurant when the time comes.

"You've given away all your food to your staff and food banks, all of your perishable food, you froze what you could, you got to restock, we sent a bunch of liquor, you know and you gotta fill the shelves again."

Half of restaurants might not reopen: survey

Industry group Restaurants Canada surveyed hundreds of members last week to assess just how dire a situation restaurateurs are facing.

Three-quarters of respondents said they are very concerned about their level of debt, and half of independent restaurant owners said they don't expect their businesses to survive if conditions don't improve.

The federal government recently announced announced a new rent subsidy program to help businesses forced to shut down due to COVID-19.

The rent relief plan, to be funded jointly with the provinces, will provide non-repayable loans to commercial property owners to cover 50 per cent of rent payments for April, May and June.

The loans will be forgiven if the property owner agrees to cut the rent by at least 75 per cent for those months and promises not to evict the tenant. The small business tenant must cover the remaining portion of the rent, which would be up to 25 per cent.

50-seat capacity a concern

Scott Shipley, who owns two Fergus & Bix locations in Calgary, said he was happy to qualify for the government program.

But after rent, property tax and minimum wage increases over the last few years, he's concerned how long restaurants, including his own, can endure a 50-seat capacity rule when things do open up.

Both Fergus & Bix locations in Calgary are owned by Scott Shipley. They are temporarily closed. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

"You just can't pay the bills with 50 seats, and how many months I can last with 50 seats, that's what keeps me up at night," he said. 

"We've had the help to get through it and then to get open but after two or three months with the minimum seating, that's what's going to sink, in my worry, is going to sink a lot of ships, that's for sure." 

Hurtubise, whose fleet is one of the biggest in the city, said he's still going to the office, putting in 12 hours a day, analyzing the situation and trying to come up with plans B and C.

But it's difficult to plan around uncertainty. 

"It's the unknowns that are killing us."

About the Author

Terri Trembath

Video Journalist

Terri Trembath is a video journalist who joined CBC Calgary in 2008. You can reach her at terri.trembath@cbc.ca.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.