Toronto

After 'Not Amazon' buoys local retail, restaurants unite in hope of New Year's boost

As the COVID-19 pandemic limits New Year's Eve festivities, restaurants are banding together online in hopes that a "shop local" mentality can save the once-lucrative holiday for eateries.

Online event, Save Hospitality's NYE 2021 Big Night In, builds database of about 200 restaurants across Canada

Christie Pinese is pictured in her store, Rose City Goods, in Toronto on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Toronto restaurateur Erik Joyal knew that his restaurants would need to do something different this New Year's Eve as the COVID-19 pandemic crashed everyone's party plans.

Seeing his fellow restaurateurs promoting prix fixe party boxes, meal kits, champagne flutes, and other creative New Year's celebrations, he decided to help organize an online show to boost visibility for small, independent business owners.

"I own three restaurants, a bar and a catering business. And so we thought to ourselves, what are we going to do?" says Joyal.

"And then it just sort of morphed into, 'Well, maybe we should be thinking on a bigger level — with all the restaurants."

As the COVID-19 pandemic limits New Year's Eve festivities, restaurants are banding together online in hopes that a "shop local" mentality can save the once-lucrative holiday for eateries.

One online event, Save Hospitality's NYE 2021 Big Night In, has built a database of about two hundred restaurants across the country. The event website has at least one listing for local restaurants in every province and territory.

Centralized delivery apps like Uber Eats, DoorDash and SkipTheDishes have become the go to databases of local fare due to in-restaurant dining restrictions. (Michel Aspirot/Radio-Canada)

A $19.95 ticket to the event gets buyers into an 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. online stream of performances by Canadian musicians. Joyal says virtual attendees allocate $5 from each ticket to a participating restaurant of their choice, which do not have to pay to be listed on the event's website and can also get extra donations from ticket sales.

Groups of former restaurant rivals band together

Before COVID-19, regional food and event blogs would publish lists of New Year's Eve events in their region, but there was never much of a national restaurant alliance around the holiday, says Joyal.

But since the pandemic began, several groups of former restaurant rivals have banded together for events like Canada Takeout Day. Some cities, like Vaughan, Ont., even have government-run directories for local diners.

Toronto entrepreneur Robert Frier started his online directory of local restaurants, EatingYYZ, after the pandemic busted his  businesses at street fairs.

Websites like Eating YYZ and Save Hospitality come as other organizers across the country have launched similar campaigns in other industries. Not-Amazon.ca, a list of local retailers, gained popularity during the holiday shopping season.

While the key shopping rush is winding down for those retailers, restaurants must still recover sorely-missed revenue from this year's dearth of New Year's pub crawls — in a year where Restaurants Canada estimates 188,000 restaurant jobs were lost.

Big drop in New Year's Eve spending estimated

An online survey of 1,091 adults by the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario estimates that New Year's Eve spending will fall to about $170 per person in Ontario this year, down from the previous year's average of $366.

According to the polling industry's generally accepted standards, online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.

In British Columbia, restaurants that have already stocked their food and liquor for New Year's Eve received unwelcome news Wednesday from the provincial government that they must stop selling alcohol at 8 p.m.

Skip the Dishes offers delivery for 600 restaurants in Manitoba alone and fills millions of orders a month from their Winnipeg headquarters. (Skip the Dishes)

While both retailers and restaurants have had to move online during the COVID-19 pandemic, Joyal says consumers may not be aware that restaurants face different challenges than retailers when it comes to delivering goods bought online.

"We deal with perishables," Joyal says. "We can't just call Canada Post and have people ship sandwiches beyond a certain radius. Traditional delivery apps are pretty cost prohibitive."

Centralized delivery apps like Uber Eats, DoorDash and SkipTheDishes have become the go to databases of local fare due to in-restaurant dining restrictions. It can be hard for any one restaurant to capture customers online when diners are looking to browse a long list rather than search for somewhere nearby, notes Sociavore Inc. co-founder Amina Gilani.

Gilani's Kitchener, Ont.-based company creates software for restaurants to do their own online orders and gift cards. She says Sociavore's customer base has tripled during the pandemic as restaurants build their own online ordering systems — sometimes as alternatives to the big apps.

"Delivery networks existed prior to Uber and prior to DoorDash. So when we are talking to restaurants throughout Canada and the U.S., many are utilizing those and keeping it really local," says Gilani.

"With restaurants you are kind of catering to a specific location or vicinity, as opposed to if you're a retailer and you can have a list and then ship the product wherever."

Frier has been quietly building the Eating YYZ directory, adding 10 to 20 listings per day to his site. But even with over 100 restaurants listed, many categories on his website sit empty, as Frier says nearby chefs are struggling to keep up with newfound demand for online ordering options.

He says he has seen a growing number of people sharing social media posts saying "Delete SkipTheDishes" — though he says ordering through app-based deliveries is better for businesses than ordering nothing at all.

The apps have also faced a backlash from restaurateurs over the steep fees they charge and delivery problems that result in angry customers. On Dec. 19, Ontario began capping delivery fees to 15 per cent to help support local businesses. And on Dec. 6, SkiptheDishes agreed to pause its partnership with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario after critics said that local restaurants should get priority.

Raymond Costain says apps like Uber Eats help keep orders flowing for his restaurant Dope as Duck. With COVID-19, he can't have crowds inside, doesn't have much foot traffic nearby, and can't afford to hire his own delivery person.

But Costain also entered a listing on the Eating YYZ database last month, drawn to its content that interviews and connects local chefs.

"As opposed to being an individual trying to get the word out there, it's good to have a community where everyone can connect," says Costain.

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