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Pre-paying for meals and fewer days open among changes in restaurant rebirth scene

TORONTO — Since netting a Michelin star earlier this year, Vancouver's Québécois-themed bistro St. Lawrence has been especially busy, with its chef crediting robust bookings to the confluence of extra buzz and the annual crush of holiday revellers.
St. Lawrence chef J-C Poirier is seen in an undated handout photo. The Vancouver-based chef, restaurateur and author is implementing a series of changes intended to improve the conditions of employment at his restaurant in the New Year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Carlo Ricci, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

TORONTO — Since netting a Michelin star earlier this year, Vancouver's Québécois-themed bistro St. Lawrence has been especially busy, with its chef crediting robust bookings to the confluence of extra buzz and the annual crush of holiday revellers.

In order to manage the flood of reservations, restaurateur J-C Poirier says bookings are capped at one month in advance and diners are asked to pre-pay for their meals. 

"That was an idea that came with the pandemic but it turns out that it is such a good model, and it works for our restaurant," says Poirier.

"We know what you order, we know how many staff we need. We also eliminated completely the problem of people not showing for the reservation or cancelling at the last minute for whatever reason."

Pent-up demand appears to be fuelling a hearty appetite for restaurant dining this holiday season, as pandemic-weary Canadians seek festive gatherings for the first time in three years.

Industry analyst Vince Sgabellone of the analytics firm NPD Group says that's especially thanks to families keen to venture out again, as well as sustained interest among the broader population that rebounded in the spring when public spaces reopened.

“They miss the socializing, they miss the experience, they miss the food,” says Sgabellone. "They miss everything and they just want to get out of the house, especially with so many people still working from home.”

With increased demand comes a flood of reservations but that welcome scheduling challenge is vulnerable to cancellations and last-minute change-ups, says Poirier. His restaurant imposed a $20 cancellation fee in 2019 but entire tables would still not show up.

"If you get an appointment at the dentist or even like yoga, if you don't show up you're going to be charged a certain amount of money," says Poirier.

"I don't know why it became a standard for the restaurant industry that it's OK, we can just not show up for our appointment. For me, it had no logic in that so I wanted to do something in the hope that other restaurants will follow.

"And I think most people now are taking at least a small amount of money on reservations."

Poirier says they are "civilized and fair" in cases where a guest calls to say they can't make it. Most often he says that results in rescheduling to another date. The St. Lawrence website says credits are issued for cancellations with at least 48 hours' notice, but are not guaranteed otherwise. Refunds are only for "few exceptions."

The Toronto eatery 20 Victoria has a pre-pay reservation system for its $175 set menu, which includes gratuity, says host and owner Chris White. He opened the restaurant in June 2021, roughly a year after his previous restaurant, Brothers Food & Wine, closed during the early months of the pandemic.

"Reservations are a disaster all over town, I think. That's all you hear from people – is that you can't get in anywhere," says White, who has noticed “more parties of four and six” as the holidays approach.

He says he implemented pre-pay in part to support broader workload and compensation changes at the restaurant that eliminated tips, put employees on salary instead of an hourly wage and guaranteed health benefits. 

But asking customers to pre-pay wasn't easy, adds White, whose restaurant is open Tuesdays to Fridays, allowing staff a three-day weekend in a 42-hour work week.

"It was hard to come to terms with but for us we're 22 seats and I spent years having an emotional, visceral reaction to people cancelling so cavalierly.... If you are a table of four who are double-booking at another restaurant or whatever the reason, you're a quarter of our dining room,” he says.

“I stopped being comfortable with that. I just thought from another angle through the pandemic, we just value our time differently."

White says COVID-19 restrictions forced the restaurant industry to reckon with long-standing labour problems including wage equity, work-life balance and mental health. He also welcomed a son in 2021, and family time became increasingly precious.

"It was a crazy time of reflection, right?" he says of intermittent measures that either shuttered restaurants or limited capacity. 

"And as those weeks went on you saw angry hospitality workers at home realizing that they've been devalued. And there's consequences for that. It really was hard to digest."

Labour reform is a priority for Poirier, too, who says that in January the restaurant will be closed Sundays and Mondays, instead of just Mondays, to better match staff family schedules. Health benefits will expand to include mental health coverage and the restaurant will match RRSP contributions. To support that, a prepaid ticket for a three-course meal will increase to $125 plus tax and gratuity, up from December's price of $89.

Poirier says the idea is not really anything new.

"A lot of people in fine dining in Europe were already doing that system. It's just here we didn't have the culture. It was scary prior to the pandemic to impose that, but after that I said, 'I'm going for it,' and I'm glad I did," says Poirier.

White acknowledges the practice may work better for some restaurants than others — it likely helps to have a dedicated clientele, a prix fixe menu and to cater to a higher income bracket.

He wonders if the apparent rush back to indoor dining is as strong among lower income customers, and if enthusiasm will continue in the New Year when credit card bills arrive. 

While overall restaurant traffic has not returned to 2019 levels, Sgabellone says dinner service surpassed pre-pandemic numbers in recent months, and family outings went “up quite considerably” at eateries ranging from fast food to full-service restaurants.

“The one silver lining perhaps of COVID is that more and more families seem to be eating together as a family with the kids, and more so than prior, those meal occasions include a restaurant meal," says Sgabellone.

Sgabellone says another group driving restaurant traffic is Generation Z, especially the 18-to-24-year-olds who are now working their first jobs but have discretionary funds because many still live at home.

"We're seeing this spike of younger adults flooding into full-service restaurants, where typically they would hang out at the lower-priced restaurants, the quick-service restaurants."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 19, 2022.

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the staff workweek at St. Lawrence drops to five days in January. In fact, the days the restaurant is open will contract to five days.