The pandemic’s devastating effect on small businesses coupled with the city’s recent introduction of a 25-cent fee on disposable cups is taxing the mental health of employees at a popular Vancouver juice company.
Zach Berman, co-owner of The Juice Truck, told city council Wednesday that staff at his four Vancouver cafes was already burdened with asking dine-in customers for proof of vaccination and to wear a mask before having to explain an additional 25-cent charge on their beverage.
“Additional opportunities for conflict have not been welcomed as a team on the frontline,” Berman said.
“The frontline workers have been the communicators, have been the PR for the city. The majority of customers don't understand the changes…and it's been up to us to educate our customers on what the 25 cents is for.”
The fee is the first of its kind in Canada and came into effect Jan. 1.
All food vendors with a business licence must charge customers 25 cents when selling a beverage in a disposable cup. The city’s goal is to reduce the number of disposable cups that end up in the landfill and push vendors to add reusable cups and adopt reusable cup share programs.
The fee goes directly to the business, but council heard from city staff Wednesday that the city cannot dictate what that revenue has to be spent on, although staff has strongly encouraged vendors to add dishwashers, reusable cups or reusable cup share programs.
Berman said his company plans to use the increased revenue for a green initiative — details of which are still being researched — but said he knows others are treating the cup fee as a source of revenue to help recoup losses from the pandemic.
“I’ve spoken to probably close to 25 small businesses and beyond ourselves, we're the only one that I know of that has put this money towards environmental initiatives,” he said.
“The majority of small businesses are still in survival mode. I can speak for ourselves, as well. Businesses have not rebounded from COVID. We're still in a state where we're trying to survive. We're not in a place where we're thriving.”
In an interview Thursday, Berman said he has had employees quit during the pandemic because of the toll conflicts with customers had on their mental health. The Juice Truck employs about 100 people, with additional locations in Burnaby and Steveston.
“It was never the expectation of our front-of-house team to have to communicate ever-changing bylaws and restrictions to customers,” he said, noting staff has had pushback from anti-vaxxers during the pandemic.
“It's a lot for them to take. We definitely have lost some good people to some mental health struggles.”
In his opening remarks to council, Berman said if the city really wants to see itself as a green leader, then it should build a facility to process all the biodegradable plastic cups and packaging used in his and other businesses.
Such an initiative, he said, would win his support for the 25-cent fee.
A self-described environmentalist, Berman said his company tested a reusable cup program prior to the pandemic. But, he said, there were issues with the reusable cup contractor picking up the The Juice Truck’s dirty cups.
The Juice Truck offers dine-in cups at some of its locations, but Berman said Vancouver Coastal Health inspectors criticized the company for having a dishwasher at one location located too far from the juice bar.
He’s not sold on implementing a company-wide reusable cup share program with a contractor, noting that unless the cups are picked up by bicycle or electric car, the goal to reduce The Juice Truck’s carbon footprint would be compromised.
Reusable cup share programs growing
Four city councillors attempted Wednesday to scrap the disposable cup fee but were unsuccessful.
Some of their reasoning was based on Berman’s concerns and the fact that reusable cup share programs and companies were adding customers prior to the pandemic and have since grown, as Jason Hawkins, co-founder and CEO of Reusables.com, told council Wednesday.
Hawkins said the company has operated for more than a year and has more than 50 cafes, restaurants and grocers offering reusables via its platform for take-out and food delivery “and we’re rapidly on-boarding more.”
Mayor Kennedy Stewart and six councillors opposed the move led by Coun. Rebecca Bligh to scrap the fee, saying it would “essentially gut the city’s commitment to reduce waste.” He also pointed out the investments many businesses already made to adapt and implement the fee.
In 2018, 82 million single-use cups, 89 million plastic shopping bags and four million paper shopping bags were thrown in the garbage in Vancouver.