Indigenous restaurant owners adopt new business models to try and ride out pandemic
'We took off fantastically, and then COVID wiped us out immediately'
Indigenous restaurants and caterers have grown in popularity over the past few years, but loss of revenue due to COVID-19 restrictions is forcing them to adapt quickly to new ways of doing business.
"We took off fantastically, and then COVID wiped us out immediately," said Johl Whiteduck Ringuette, owner and operator of Nish Dish Marketeria and Catering in Toronto.
Ringuette, who is Anishinaabe-Algonquin, has been in the catering and restaurant business for over 25 years and just closed the doors on his storefront marketeria.
Ringuette said his first hint of the impact the pandemic would have on business was March 9, when he was surprised by a last-minute cancellation.
"Within a week, all of our catering got cancelled for all of March," he said.
Nish Dish's menu featured Ringuette's own recipes including dishes like three sisters stew, elk chili and wild rice casserole, as well as products from other Indigenous entrepreneurs.
Though he opened the doors of Nish Dish in April 2017, he said he continued to make most of his money through catering.
Ringuette tried to keep Nish Dish's doors open by offering a takeout menu but said "a takeout situation is not appropriate for Nish Dish; the food is extremely expensive.
"We have the cafe at the front, but that's not where we make our money."
Most of Ringuette's catering clients were long term and would make large orders. Without the steady money from the catering contracts, he said it just wasn't enough to keep the doors open.
"All of our catering is cancelled from now to June; that's over $100,000 loss right now," said Ringuette.
Ringuette said he hopes to eventually resume his catering business. He also plans on opening up a marketeria online.
"Our plan is to try to create an online store," said Ringuette.
"I have all these First Nation products that I buy from local Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs. And so we'll sell food products on the site to help with Indigenous food sovereignty."
'I was devastated'
When the pandemic started to shut down businesses in Vancouver, Salmon N' Bannock owner Inez Cook said she could barely get out of bed.
"I was devastated just knowing that I was going to have to lay off staff," she said.
"I thought I was going to have to put a lock on the door and end it. It was bad."
Cook, who is Nuxalk from Bella Coola, opened the doors of her restaurant during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. She said a recent grant from Indigenous Tourism BC has helped to make improvements at the restaurant.
Now she has gone from having 11 people on staff to just a manager, a chef and herself.
Salmon N' Bannock switched to takeout and delivery options through Uber Eats, with 50 per cent of the business coming from the food delivery app.
"I might come up with new menu items because I can't afford the 30 per cent commission on Uber Eats and I don't want to charge a fortune to include that," said Cook.
The location usually seats up to 30 people, but if restaurants are permitted to reopen to in-person dining with physical distancing measures, she guesses it would only be able seat five, making it an unsustainable business model.
Hiring Indigenous employees
Both Nish Dish and Salmon N' Bannock take pride in hiring Indigenous people from the community.
With the exception of one person, The Feast in Winnipeg's West End has 17 employees who are either First Nations or Métis.
"I have some key staff that are wanting to come back to work. They want to work hard with me and we're going to give it a go," said Feast owner Christa Bruneau-Guenther.
Like Nish Dish, Bruneau-Guenther plans on expanding an online site that offers locally sourced, Indigenous-made products along with a new and improved takeout menu.
When her restaurant opens again, she said they will attempt to forego using a third party delivery service.
"I'm trying to be an optimistic person," said Bruneau-Guenther.
"I think I owe it to the community."