Nfld. & Labrador·Changing Course

As economy falters, restaurateurs look back at oil boom that gave rise to fine dining

The once-thriving restaurant scene in St. John's is preparing for lean years, as a pandemic and plummeting oil prices inflict pain on an already fragile economy.

Offshore exploits led to inshore spoils, but restaurant industry questions what the future will bring

Jeremy Bonia is co-founder and sommelier at Raymonds on Water Street in St. John's. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

It was 2012 and times were good in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Oil was flowing offshore, and expensive bottles of wine were flowing in restaurants around St. John's.

Jeremy Bonia remembers the days when a barrel of oil sold for $120, and a bottle of wine could easily fetch more.

"I mean, we were doing well," he said with a smile while standing in front of his restaurant, Raymonds, on Water Street in St. John's.

The booming economy paved the way for new possibilities on the city's food scene — high-end dining for people with money to spend, and corporations looking to impress potential clients.

There was as much business being done at the dinner table as the boardroom table, and people like Bonia used the influx of riches to build their dream restaurants.

Those places are empty now, as a pandemic and plummeting oil prices have wreaked havoc on the already fragile economy in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Bonia and co-owner Jeremy Charles were forced this spring to lay off about 100 staff members between Raymonds and their other restaurant, The Merchant Tavern, with no idea if or when they could bring everyone back.

Everything is changing

High-end restaurants depend on tourism to make money in the summer months, and are kept afloat throughout the offseason by major industry players, like oil and gas companies.

But when it comes to the symbiotic relationship between oil and restaurants, most of the damage was done before the world knew about COVID-19.

The riches of 2012 were followed by a crash at the end of 2014. The yearly average price for a barrel of oil plummeted from $98.97 to $53.03, and the big players on the Grand Banks started slashing.

"We started to see companies scale back either office sizes, or team sizes, and expense accounts as well," Bonia said.

"Just the amount of meetings and physical people on the ground started to scale back quite a bit."

Without a strong economy to prop up the restaurant industry throughout the offseason, Raymonds closed its doors for the winter this year. The decision was made before COVID-19 was on anybody's radar.

In the historic Quidi Vidi Village, chef Todd Perrin knows all about the rise and fall of oil prices at Mallard Cottage.

Oil had been the catalyst to exploring the world of fine dining with traditional cuisine — places where concoctions of wild game and locally-sourced vegetables could fetch a pretty penny.

Todd Perrin, pictured in this file photo, cuts a cooked lobster at his restaurant, Mallard Cottage, in St. John's. (Gary Locke/CBC)

"It made it possible to operate a restaurant and be able to pay the bills," Perrin said. "At the beginning of my career, it was a tough market. When oil really hit, and St. John's was full of people attached to the oil industry with expense accounts, it made a big, big difference."

By the time the expense accounts shrunk, places like Raymonds and Mallard Cottage already had reputations bolstered by profiles in publications like The New York Times to help carry them through the leaner years. 

Those international awards and glowing reviews meant tourists were flocking to get in during the summer seasons.

Now, with no tourists due to COVID-19 restrictions, Bonia said he knows they'll have a hard time continuing the way they had for a decade.

While other restaurants are relying on locals eating out to keep them afloat, he said that's not likely with a place like Raymonds — especially with more than 30,000 jobs lost in the province since March.

"Fine dining is a niche thing. It's not something we expect people to come out and do once a week, once a month even," he said. 

"Raymonds will definitely feel it more than other restaurants."

How oil will affect the next generation of chefs

But it's not just local restaurants that are feeling the effects of the downturn in oil.

Roger Andrews, an advanced cooking instructor at the College of the North Atlantic, said he can look at his students on the first day of class, and pick out the ones who aspire to be the next celebrity chef.

He makes it his goal to give them the advice they need to hone their skills, but to also open up their minds to more realistic pathways.

With a downturn in the economy, students can expect fewer restaurants taking people in for internships, but that doesn't necessarily mean a lack of options.

"Where they're actually going to go is the big thing," Andrews said.

"Perhaps we're not teaching them for the restaurant setting as much as we would for the old age home."

Roger Andrews is a chef and instructor of the advanced cooking program at College of the North Atlantic in St. John's. (Gary Locke/CBC)

Another perk of the offshore oil boom was an uptake in the college's marine cooking program.

People that grew tired of working in the volatile world of restaurant kitchens were returning to upgrade their education and head offshore. Oil companies handed lucrative salaries to cooks, who were ditching meagre pay onshore to head out on the rigs and supply vessels in the North Atlantic.

"They have families, want something more stable, or they go chasing money," Andrews said. 

"You've got big oil offering up someone $100,000 a year — people are going to take that."

Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore has lost at least one oil platform for up to two years, and public figures from the premier to the president of Memorial University have called on the federal government to support the industry to prevent further losses.

Andrews expects the restaurant industry will thin out, too, with the combination of pains being inflicted on the province from all sides — Muskrat Falls in the north, offshore oil in the east, and a lack of tourists entering the province from the west.

"It's a dog-eat-dog world, where you have to be very unique, and interesting and different," he said.

"I can foresee with a bit of a change in the economy, the number of those restaurants will have to drop down a little bit, unfortunately."

Raymonds is a fine dining restaurant in downtown St. John's. With executive chef Jeremy Charles and sommelier Jeremy Bonia at the helm, the restaurant has earned high praise on the global stage. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Jeremy Bonia hopes that won't include Raymonds. To save his neck, he's willing to alter the formula that made the restaurant a hit with critics around the world.

"We look forward to the day we can go back to what we were doing before," he said.

"I'm sure we'll open Raymonds, it just may be a different capacity, maybe as a different concept for a little bit."

Bonia and Charles have had offers thrown at them before to leave behind their home province and start new ventures on the mainland, but they've resisted those — and Bonia said, they will resist more.

 "We're not here for the weather and we're not here for the money. We're here because we love living here," he said.

This coverage is part of Changing Course, a series of stories from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador that's taking a closer look at how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting local industries and businesses, and how they're adapting during these uncertain times to stay afloat.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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