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Vancouver restaurant plagued by vandalism, crushing debt turns to customers for help

"I've stabilized things, but to dig our way out of all that debt that we didn't cause, it would just take so long."
Finch's Tea House has been a popular sandwich cafe in downtown Vancouver for 20 years but faces debt due to vandalism, inflation and pandemic-related loans.

A popular Vancouver restaurant facing crushing debt is looking to the community to help.

Sheryl Matthew, owner of Finch's Tea House at 353 West Pender St. and Finch's Market at 501 East Georgia, has started a GoFundMe campaign to raise $90,000 to cover money owed to the government.

"I threw a GoFundMe campaign because it's been one thing on top of another for so many years," Matthew tells V.I.A. by phone.

Matthew and her ex built the business themselves (including 90 per cent of the physical renovations), opening the doors to Finch's on West Pender in 2004. For years, things went well the sandwich shop became a local staple; they often had lines out the door for hours during busy lunches.

In recent years, though, there has been a constant series of outside forces that damaged the business, financially and physically, according to Matthew, who now owns the business alone.

"In short, Finch's was just fine before COVID-19," she says.

Among the issues Matthew cites are constant vandalism, rising food prices, increasing staff costs, city construction, government loans given during the pandemic, and the growth of the DTES.

Vandalism costing the business tens of thousands of dollars

Most recently it was a smashed window at the original location when someone walked by during lunch service on Saturday, Dec. 9; it was the ninth smashed window in 18 months. Police say they have a photo of the suspect and are trying to identify them.

"This window was the last straw," Matthew says.

Finch's doesn't have window insurance because until recently the cost of the insurance was higher than the cost of broken windows.

"To do $1,000 or $2,000 in property damage to someone you don't know, that you don't have an issue with, is a strange thing to do," Matthew says. "We have to make $10,000 or $20,000 to make the money to clear that."

That's difficult to do when trying to sell affordable, quality food, she adds.

Finch's is known for its menu of baguette sandwiches loaded with cheese, veggies, and prosciutto, artfully presented and served up in a cozy, shabby chic-style cafe setting. 

'I'm just a single mom running a business.'

While Matthew understands the person responsible for the most recent window smashing may be unwell, she notes that the majority of smashed windows have happened around 2:30 a.m., as bars and pubs close for the night.

The business owner calls the actions of the vandals "aggressive," given the fact that the perpetrators are strangers.

And the issues aren't just at the Pender location; at the market, just a couple of days after she personally repainted part of the exterior, someone wrote ACAB in six-foot letters.

"They didn't miss a single piece of wood; it took forever to sand it down again," Matthew says. "What do we have to do with the police? I'm just a single mom running a business."

At the same time, acid etching has become a bigger issue, where a chemical is used to etch tags into the glass. It can't be washed away, leaving ugly marks, designs, or words on the glass.

Road work and migration of unhoused locals adding to challenges

Vandalism isn't the only factor; for more than a year, Homer Street, directly next to Finch's on Pender, has been under construction. Some of the items from the site have gone through her window, Matthew notes.

"It's been a mess," she says.

There have been months where no work has happened, she says, recalling that when she spoke to the city about it she was told there are only so many crews in the city has to work on streets.

The ongoing road work has contributed to the spread of Vancouver's unhoused population from the core of the DTES westward to Finch's neighbourhood. Staff regularly have to wake people sleeping in their entrance to open the cafe in the morning, attests Matthew.

"They're sad, desperate people who need help," Matthew says. "It's not their fault, but it's on our doorstep, literally."

Pandemic problems include loan repayments

Like many small food service businesses, Finch's faced many issues during the pandemic, starting in March 2020.

As government restrictions were imposed and loans offered, Finch's followed the rules.

"The government closed everybody, and then we needed the loan," she explains. "Usually you have to do something to land yourself in debt, right? Something, like make a bad decision, do a bad job, or gamble...something."

Now, however, the business is facing debt as those loans are due. She had some savings, but it was not enough.

"It was the government programs which I believe were well-intentioned but had a devastating effect on small businesses," Matthew says.

The restrictions were a moving target Matthew describes, and affected people's habits as restaurants opened, closed, and altered service to keep up.

"I remember twice over the first couple of years when things first started to turn around," she says. "And then the government would announce some new rise in numbers or a new variant and slap on new restrictions, and our numbers would just take a nosedive again."

That broke the habits of the community she'd spent nearly two decades building. Now, on any given day, the number of customers varies wildly.

"One day is either half as busy or twice as busy as the next day," she says. "How do you staff for that?"

Inflation and other issues

"That was followed with inflation, particularly with food and also with staff, whose living costs have risen dramatically because of the housing crisis as well," Matthew explains.

Between the two Finch's she has 18 employees, mostly full-time.

She notes that Finch's built a brand on affordable things like sandwiches, while still using higher quality ingredients, but that's become difficult to maintain.

Family health has also played a role in Finch's situation Matthew says. She has twins and her daughter has had to spend two stints in the BC Children's Hospital over the past couple of years while her son recently dealt with issues from a concussion.

At the same time, Finch's plays a role in her family as well.

"Finch's became what I do to be a good parent; it's why I take such great care with everything," she says. "The better I run Finch's the better I support my family."

Overwhelmed by debt, owner created crowdfunding campaign

"I've stabilized things, but to dig our way out of all that debt that we didn't cause," Matthew says. "It would just take so long."

She's taken on extra jobs to make things work, but earning enough extra to pay off the debt is getting overwhelming.

So earlier this week she started the GoFundMe, asking the community to help raise $90,000 to keep things going. At the time of publishing more than $10,000 had been raised.

"It's so helpful and so appreciated and I'm just really grateful to all the nice people that Finch's has made happy over the years who are willing to help us now," she says.

Video: Checking out the sandwiches at Finch's in Downtown Vancouver

@forkingawesomevia The search for the best sandwich spot in Vancouver continues with a visit to Finch’s in downtown, known for its very aesthetic baguette sandwiches with fresh veggies, fruit, cheese, and prosciutto. A classic option for sandwich fans! #forkingawesome #vancouverbc #vancouverfoodie #sandwichesoftiktok 🎙️@LindsayWR ♬ Make It Better (Instrumental) - Anderson .Paak

With additional reporting by Lindsay William-Ross

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