Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

Who on earth would want to open a restaurant? (And let's be thankful they do)

Discretionary spending is the first to be cut when dark clouds show up. That can be brutal in the food business, writes John Gushue.

Economy, weather and taste are all factors the food business has to, well, weather

The restaurant trade can be a volatile one, as it depends on steady customers and staying ahead of trends. (CBC)

Years ago, a coworker surprised me by revealing that he had — in a former life, and it really did feel like that for him — run a restaurant in downtown St. John's. 

There were lots of amusing stories, but also some hair-raising ones, like those times he had to resort to kiting cheques, or writing a cheque for one account from another that had no money. It was an awful juggling act, and eventually it all ended. And his life went on. 

The restaurant business is kind of crazy. Think about it: you don't know exactly how much product you need, your place can be packed or emptied by the weather, your hours are out of kilter with the rest of the planet, and — to top it off — a lot of what you use in your business can actually rot before your eyes. 

Restaurants get a lot of notice because they're far more than just another commercial establishment. As small businesses, they punch above their weight in contributing to the vibrancy and social well-being of a community. There's an aspect of a town square to them. They add flavour — not just to the food we eat, but how we live together. 

In a way, restaurants are also barometers of how the economy writ large is doing. Every closure feels like a harbinger of something bigger, even though — when you look at the long view — restaurants open and close all the time. Farewells can be for a number of reasons, from retirement to not clicking with the clientele to exhaustion to, yes, a drop in customers. 

Earlier this year, when the Reluctant Chef decided to hang up its chef's apron, the owner was candid about how the drop in the oil business had a direct impact on his bookings. 

Zach Goudie got access to the restaurant for the above feature of the business's final days. [A note to declare: my nephew worked there.] As it turned out, news of the closure meant sellout nights in the final run. 

There have been others in the St. John's market. Earlier this month, entrepreneur Andrea Maunder decided to put Bacalao up for sale. The news that Bad Bones Ramen was closing was met with audible gasps, at least among the folks in earshot. 

Adam Gollop, right, and Jasmine Kean say the rent has become too high for Bad Bones Ramen at its Water Street location. They may reopen at another location. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

Let's be frank: just opening a restaurant is a risky business. No matter how much research you've done and no matter what your (pardon the pun) gut is telling you, you really don't know if your business will be welcomed — and supported enough to sustain the enterprise and the people who work there. 

"I would never," a friend of mine who's a chef told me this week, "open a restaurant with my own money." 

We form emotional connections to these places. I remember the drawn look on our son's face when we learned that the mom-and-pop restaurant that we always visited on family vacations had closed, never to reopen. 

In the case of Bacalao and Bad Bones, there's a broader context. Maunder cited the economy in her decision to close. Bad Bones cited high rent in the downtown area.

These issues are connected: commercial taxes are going up again in St. John's, despite a sense that things are still rocky in the commercial core. I know one building owner who told me his break-even point for rentals is now higher than what most commercial tenants are prepared to pay. 

When discretionary spending gets cut 

The customer base is also volatile. After all, one of the first things to get squeezed in the economy is the food and beverage sector.

When discretionary spending feels threatened, we all pinch our wallets more tightly. We go out less often. It's just human nature.

But that can have a big cumulative effect. Small wonder that restaurant workers feel there is a Grim Reaper drifting around the restaurant scene. 

Yet, somehow, new restaurants keep coming along. Just this month, the upstart Green Door Restaurant moved into the space where the seafood restaurant Aqua used to operate on Water Street. 

Earlier this week, we brought you the story of Jerry Joy, an engineer who had been working real estate — but has taken a big risk by launching a food truck business to share the flavours of his beloved India. 

Sure, the restaurant scene has ghosts and memories of meals served long ago, from the Starboard Quarter to Bianca's to Duckworth Lunch to Velma's. The list of former restaurants in St. John's alone would be a long one. 

Yep, I might question the soundness of mind of anyone who wants to start a food business, especially in a rocky climate. 

But I think we ought to thank them, too. 

The economy sucks! No, it's great! 

Jumping from the barometer of the restaurant trade, you can find mixed signals in broader economic news. 

Oil production at platforms like Hibernia is expected to increase in 2019. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Take the annual prediction from the Conference Board of Canada, which was released last week and had some phrasing that might surprise you. 

"Thanks to higher offshore oil production, Newfoundland and Labrador will go from having the weakest provincial economy this year to the front of the pack in 2019," the board reported. 

The rate of growth next year is expected to top five per cent, which is pretty heady by provincial standards. Most other provinces, the board says, will have growth under just two per cent in 2019. 

Hmm ... wait a minute. In its own fiscal update from earlier in the fall, the Newfoundland and Labrador government said its own forecast for real GDP growth in 2019 is 2.2 per cent. 

That may not sound like much of a difference, but it seems to be a very different expectation of the year ahead. 

Got free time? Get reading, pal 

Yes, it's the last weekend before Christmas, and we know you're busy. But you know what? You need some me time. 

Here are some things we've published over the last seven days to make your reading time worthwhile. 

Skiing downhill? How quaint. We profiled a new invention called the Skizee, which makes uphill skiing sound like a riot. 

Building a dory can be about a whole lot more than something to put on the water. 

At least one judge knows his Bob Dylan songbook. 

One of our most-shared stories this week was about Andy Fillier and Jim Wheeler, who were killed in a collision in Nova Scotia. 

Vickie Morgan is inspired by songwriter Ron Hynes. (Sarah Smellie/CBC)

Vickie Morgan's essay about leaving a higher standard of living in the U.S. and deciding to stick it out in Newfoundland and Labrador struck a chord with readers across the country. 

Kathy Dunderdale told the Muskrat Falls inquiry she had no reason to not trust what Nalcor told her about the megaproject's potential cost overruns. 

We loved this story about two sisters, a hair salon, and a life saved

Punk lives

There's more than one side to Gros Morne National Park — literally. 

GingerFred. It's a thing

Alan Doyle is a very nice person; his replacement of a guitar stolen from an elderly veteran was a brightener. And the video below — of Edward Sheppard playing that guitar — is going to make your heart melt a little bit. 

That's it for this week. Enjoy your weekend. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.


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