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B.C. food industry ready for COVID-19 marketplace

Restaurateurs, grocers draft virus-survival strategies
Bishop's restaurant owner John Bishop has been inundated with longtime customers aiming to visit before he retires and closes the 35-year-old business in August | Chung Chow

Bishop's owner John Bishop did not realize when he recently announced he would retire and close his 35-year-old restaurant in August that he would provide his restaurant needed help in staying busy as public fears of contracting COVID-19 ramp up, and potential customers become less inclined to go to restaurants.

As of press time, the novel coronavirus pandemic had infected at least 169,385 people and caused 6,513 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University Centre for Systems Science and Engineering, with no sign of abating - prompting quarantines, lockdowns and travel advisories around the world.

"We're a bit of an anomaly," Bishop told Business in Vancouver. "All my friends and customers who have been coming for years have been scrambling to get in for dinner before we close."

Many other restaurants in Vancouver continue to see significant foot traffic, but owners fear that people will take provincial health officer Bonnie Henry's advice and start "social distancing" or avoiding social gatherings whenever possible.

Worse for their bottom lines could be an upcoming B.C. government order that restaurants close. Tonight, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee tweeted that tomorrow "we will temporarily shut down restaurants, bars and entertainment/recreational facilities statewide."

"King County will shut down these establishments immediately. As the largest population center and current epicenter of this outbreak, they must act with even greater urgency," the governor tweeted.

Hoarding has already taken place at grocery stores in B.C., where shelves filled with canned goods, rice, pasta and sauces are noticeably emptier than usual.

Save-On-Foods managing director of corporate services and public affairs Julie Dixon Olmstead maintains that her company's "very strong and robust supply chain" is sufficient to keep products in stock even if panic buying increases and people adjust to working at home and eating self-made meals.

"It's no different to how we look to service our customers for what they want every day," she said.

Meal delivery companies may also be affected by coronavirus fears, although it remains to be seen to what degree.

People who fear catching the virus may be more likely to order food from these companies because they do not want to be in crowded restaurants. BC Restaurant & Food Services Association CEO Ian Tostenson, for example, is convinced that this will be the case.

"A big part of the market will go, 'What? Cooking?" he said. "You'll see a continued increase, and I think a dramatic increase of people saying, 'You know what? I'm not going out but I'm not going to sacrifice my favourite restaurant food.' They'll order through third-party delivery services. That sector is going crazy and it will go more crazy now."

The flip side, however, is that people who are concerned about catching the virus from the restaurant chef or the delivery driver may make meals at home because they believe that the food preparation would be safer.

Tostenson said on March 15 that he supports Inslee's action: "Washington State needs to do this as they are a hot zone. We defer to the B.C. health officer."

When asked if he was concerned that the B.C. government would implement a similar order, he said, "I am, but we need to ensure government support."

Starbucks has taken steps in Canada that so far exceed government demands. It said earlier today that it would close its Canadian stores for all seating by Wednesday. Many stores will close. Others have limited hours. The economic impact is so far unclear. Starbucks' Chinese same-store sales were down 78 per cent in February, and it's starting to look like other markets will see similar downturns for the company.

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