Ottawa

'It hurts': Restaurants tightening belts, reducing serving sizes as food costs skyrocket

Restaurant owners across Ottawa say rising food costs have them shrinking portion sizes and weighing whether to pass along a percentage of the increase to customers.

Canadians paid 9.7% more for food in April than 1 year earlier: Statistics Canada

Ahmed Abdulkadir says Safia Restaurant is suffering with a spike in food costs that's seen some items more than double in price. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Ahmed Abdulkadir used to stock his restaurant without giving his shopping list a second thought, but now a simple stop at the store is painful.

The prices of staples from rice to cooking oil have skyrocketed, leaving the restaurateur standing in the grocery aisle asking himself, "OK, do I need this?"

"It hurts," he said Wednesday morning, the banging and clanging of prep work ringing out behind him at Safia Restaurant, the eatery his family runs on St. Laurent Boulevard. 

"Literally it hurts going to the store knowing that you're spending $1,500 a day. It hurts and that is a reality."

Abdulkadir is far from alone. Restaurant owners across Ottawa said rising food costs have them tightening their belts, reducing portion sizes and weighing whether to pass along a percentage of the increase to customers.

Statistics Canada reported last month that Canadians paid 9.7 per cent more for food in April 2022 compared to the same month last year.

Basics like fresh fruit have jumped by 10 per cent, while pasta prices have risen by nearly 20 per cent.

Statistics Canada pointed to the the Russian invasion of Ukraine, along with rising fuel costs and bad weather in some growing areas.

"The price? It's killing us now, especially Thai food and everything coming from overseas," said Bounnom Souphilavong, who runs Thai Flame Restaurant in Bells Corners with his wife and her sister.

A case of coconut milk used to go for $38. Now it's $75, he said. Shrimp once cost $28 per pack. Now it's $41.

Bounnom Souphilavong said the spike in food costs has pushed his family to consider raising prices at Thai Flame Restaurant in Bells Corners. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

They've seen a similar spike in the cost of cooking oil, from $20 for a 16-litre jug to $40 now, according to Souphilavong.

His family is considering how best to address the challenge. Souphilavong said they're looking at increasing prices or reducing the amount of food, but was quick to say serving less for more would make them feel bad.

Lobster poutine downsized

At Petit Bill's Bistro in Ottawa's Wellington West neighbourhood, the much-loved lobster poutine has been downsized.

A portion is now about 60 per cent of its former size, said co-owner Terry Fitzpatrick. The mixture of fries, mascarpone sauce and shellfish is now an appetizer, not a main course.

Fitzpatrick estimated he's recently been paying anywhere from 15-20 per cent more for food, calling that a "big chunk of change."

"I go all around the city to find the best price I can for butter," he said, adding the restaurant has turned to Costco because of its consistent pricing. "Two years ago I just ordered it."

Customers have been "kind and generous," said Fitzpatrick. But the way things are going, he anticipates menus could look different in the near future.

"I think you're gonna see restaurants … not putting prices on because everything's going to be market price."

Bag of onions once $15, now $45

Abdulkadir has taken the plunge and started raising prices at Safia Restaurant slightly in an effort to keep up with costs. Cutting ingredients and losing quality just wasn't an option, he said. 

They're also looking as far afield as Montreal and Toronto to find more affordable supplies.

Customers have been understanding so far, but some of the regulars they used to see three times a month are now only stopping by once a month, he said.

The fact that it's a family restaurant means they can rely on each other and keep labour costs lower.

Ahmed Abdulkadir stirs rice at Safia Restaurant. He said a five-kilogram bag of rice that used to go for $35 now costs him around $45. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Still, they can't keep changing their prices, and when a bag of onions that used to go for $15 is now around $45, Abdulkadir is looking for a permanent solution.

"We have to find ways to make profit because we're not [a] charity," he said, adding the provincial and federal government should do something to support small businesses.

"This will hurt everybody if you don't come up with a sustainable solution to fight inflation."

Many restaurants did not survive the pandemic. And the ones that did now must deal with higher food prices and diners more skittish about spending.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dan Taekema

Reporter

Dan Taekema is a reporter with CBC Ottawa. He has worked with CBC News in Hamilton, Windsor and Toronto and for newspapers around southern Ontario. You can reach him by emailing daniel.taekema@cbc.ca.

With files from Dayne Patterson

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