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From farm to table

The food industry, from producers to eateries, copes with COVID-19

When the first real shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic were being felt in the Sea to Sky in mid-March, one of the sectors most affected was the food industry.

Businesses were sent for a loop with restaurants  forced to close initially, while most residents stocked up more than usual at local grocery stores.

As customers and businesses alike have made necessary adaptations—eateries have reopened with new protocols and it’s not a game of chance trying to acquire flour for your sourdough from the supermarket—Pique looks at how the industry may be forever changed.

Start at the farm

Kicking off right where the food grows from the ground, at local farms such as Pemberton Meadows’ Laughing Crow Organics, co-owner Kerry McCann explains the business has felt the ups and downs so far.

While its ability to get its products directly into consumers’ hands through farmers’ markets in Squamish and, particularly, in Whistler has been hamstrung by pandemic restrictions, the farm, she says, has seen a sustained spike in its community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes, which were dropped off in a contactless manner even pre-pandemic. Couple that with people dining out less and, therefore, eating in more, there was some opportunity to be had.

“There was definitely more awareness and demand from the local population, and possibly, a bunch of our [farmers] market customers joined our box program,” she says. “That felt like the community adapting and continuing to support local food.

“A lot of the conversations we were having with people, if they signed up or afterwards, was, ‘I want to support our local economy,’” she adds, noting that all of Laughing Crow’s produce is sold within 93 kilometres of the farm.

With its 2020 plan well underway by the time mid-March rolled around, McCann describes the early days of the pandemic as a situation where she and co-owner Andrew Budgell reconsidered their strategy, and bet on a hopeful outcome where they could sell more product. If not, they’d adapt in other ways.

“Our seeds were already here, our crop plan was already made and our season was already planned,” she says. “When it happened in mid-March, we’d already started our tomatoes and peppers and onions and leeks. The early season things were already growing.”

As in previous years, Laughing Crow has tapped into other revenue streams with its sunflower maze, where visitors can also visit the onsite farm produce and goods stand.

“It is kind of like private shopping,” she says with a laugh. “There’s no line-up.”

To the southeast, West Vancouver-Sea to Sky MLA Jordan Sturdy can provide perspective on multiple levels as the proprietor of North Arm Farm on Highway 99.

As a supplier that tries to carve out a niche by growing purple or white carrots instead of the traditional orange varieties in order to charge a premium, the farm is reliant on restaurants ordering and serving those products, which has been impossible to predict this year.

“It’s hard to know what to plant not knowing if that customer base that has been there for years is going to be around,” he says, pointing to estimates that as many as 30 per cent of eateries may shutter this year.

While access to labour is an issue across the board in the region, Sturdy explains that COVID-19 exacerbated those challenges. In his case, only one of the farm’s long-time labourers made it up from Mexico this season—though it wasn’t until June. In a normal year, many sojourn up in the spring and have been doing so for a decade or more.

“To have all of your experienced employees not available to you at all causes huge, huge issues,” he says.

Sturdy gave the example of how one veteran, who has come up for nearly 20 years, was difficult to replace.

“He knows my system. He knows my equipment. He knows my scheduling. He knows how we fix fences and how we run an irrigation system,” he says. “That’s only gained through years of experience.

“The idea that somebody who is going to be here for a couple of weeks or a month, and then never again, can replace that person is nonsensical.”

A larger issue, Sturdy points out, is that the workers are classified as unskilled and, as such, do not have a clear path to obtaining citizenship. Sturdy, representing the opposition Liberals, also took aim at the province’s Employer Health Tax, criticizing that it assumes that the affected businesses have high margins, but also that though the seasonal international workers count as part of the payroll, they are not eligible to receive the service.

Also at the federal level, Sturdy has experienced challenges with the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) with employees willing to work, but not to the point that they would jeopardize eligibility in the program.

All told, Sturdy says, the added expenses make it more difficult to compete with growers in California and Mexico, which have competitive advantages of significantly lower wages and longer growing seasons.

Pemberton’s farming future

With supermarkets experiencing shortages in the pandemic’s early days, both Village of Pemberton (VOP) council and residents quickly started considering food security in earnest.

In the municipality’s case, when looking at avenues it could take to boost non-taxation revenue at its regular meeting on May 26, it opted to consider projects in the food and agriculture sector, as well as an RV park and tourism infrastructure, including agritourism.

While work, led by economic and finance consultant Peter van Gils of the Whistler Centre for Sustainability, is still ongoing to determine the feasibility of these projects, it’s clear that maintaining Pemberton’s prime position as an agricultural leader—and ensuring that it benefits locals—is top of mind.

“We’ve said it numerous times that food just goes down to the [Lower] Mainland and then it just comes back up,” Councillor Ryan Zant said during the meeting.

Among the ideas floated in the meeting were finding ways to redistribute vegetables locally and constructing a “mini abattoir.”

“It would make local food even cheaper for locals, but there would be a profit margin as well,” Mayor Mike Richman said.

While he was set to investigate the possibilities further, van Gils expressed reservations about the municipality getting involved, as it would be hard to recoup costs. Stringent regulations would also present challenges.

“You’d have to have significant volume and the volume is hard to come by,” said van Gils, who added that he’s most experienced with similar projects in the fishing industry.

In an interview in early August, Richman says he expects the discussion to return to council this autumn. It’s of interest to more than just those around the table: addressing food security concerns and making the most of Pemberton’s agricultural might were common suggestions to help the village’s recovery from those responding a survey sent out by the Mayor’s Task Force on COVID-19 Response and Recovery.

Richman, reinforcing that everything is in very early stages, says that a potential agricultural facility could be a VOP initiative, a private venture or take the form of a partnership.

“We’re looking at it from a few levels. One is as an economic driver with potential revenue other than taxation, but food processing has all kinds of economic spinoff for our valley. Just the fact that we’re an agriculturally rich valley and so much of our food heads down the highway—some of it then comes back; most of it doesn’t—it would give us the ability to store, process, maybe even brand and market the Pemberton Valley food,” he says. “We could keep it regionally so that we the residents can access our own food, so to speak, for the winter.”

In addition to food security, other benefits would be reduced greenhouse-gas emissions and convenience for locals. Richman speaks from experience, as he is a small producer of pigs and chickens.

“There’s a lot of us that have six, seven pigs and we end up driving down to Chilliwack or Kamloops to have our animals butchered and then we go pick them up again,” he says. “We go up and down the highway to process our livestock.”

Another pitched option is attempting to form a collective among growers to ensure residents can access local food all year long, which is too taxing individually but is possible with a central facility. It, of course, comes with its own set of hurdles.

While some growers sell locally, Richman says, others plop their produce on a truck and send it to market.

“It’s easier than trying to process, or wash, or store [the food]. That’s a lot of work after harvest,” he says.

Though there were no specifics yet, Sturdy echoes the concerns that there would be enough volume of any crop to make a facility viable, noting that a McCain’s potato-processing facility, for example, would need vast amounts of cheap spuds for something like tater tots.

A collective, he adds, faces challenges from Agricultural Land Reserve regulations, as at least 50 per cent of product that is stored, packed, processed or prepared must also be produced onsite.

The tide might be turning, however, as blueberry producers in the Fraser Valley look to be making headway to change the law to allow shared storage and freezing facilities, Sturdy says.

If there is a change, Sturdy believes it’s something for local growers to consider, as he notes crop consultants have recommended that seed-potato producers team up.

“The problem is we have pretty rudimentary storage facilities here in the valley and a controlled atmosphere storage facility would provide a much better quality crop after storage,” he says. “The problem is if there are 25 or so growers who are all kind of competing with each other, it doesn’t lend itself to that. They’re a bunch of entrepreneurs. They’re a bunch of small business people. They’re all trying to protect their own market share and protect their own customer base and grow their own unique varieties.”

For her part, McCann says there have been discussions among local growers about what can be changed to run more smoothly, though with Laughing Crow’s direct-to-consumer model, she’s unsure of how the business would fit into a collective.

“There are so many wonderful farmers in the valley and so much food is produced here,” she says. “We always feel really thankful to be part of the farming community and we’re surrounded by great farms.

“It would be neat if something more substantial, if something took shape in that way, the ‘hows?’ and the ‘buts’ are generally the end of the conversation. We’d need an aggregation point. We’d need cold storage. We’d need a co-operative, third-party model.”

As for meat, interested producers can apply for a Class E licence for on-farm slaughter of one to 10 animals per year for direct-to-consumer sale.

Creating product in a pandemic


One glimmer of light for local java lovers came thanks to the health crisis.

Hammer Roasting Company co-owner Mat Peake and wife Chrissy were both “blindsided” by being laid off from their respective part-time jobs due to COVID-19, but ultimately found themselves able to devote more than a day a week to the venture.

“We found ourselves at loose ends with our day jobs,” Peake says with a chuckle, “so we thought, ‘Well, we’ve got nothing else to do, so let’s do this.’

“We had Hammer to distract us from this storm, to a large degree, and we’re very, very grateful for the local support in doing that.”

Peake, a graphic design contractor with Whistler Blackcomb, didn’t anticipate going back to work any time soon when speaking in July, while Chrissy is now focusing on Hammer full time.

The business, now in its fourth year, had fortuitously transitioned from manual orders to e-commerce for its deliveries just last year. As people avoided grocery stores, Peake says they turned to Hammer to ensure they had safe, easy access to one staple.

“We noticed this massive uptick on the Hammer side, which was really unexpected and really humbling,” Peake says. “There were many people at that time who were panicking that they wouldn’t be able to get the basic essentials.

“We filled a very important need in being an essential.”

Hammer subsequently added a Wednesday delivery in addition to its mainstay Saturday drop-offs.

The supply roadblock for Hammer could be down the line, as their coffee comes from central and South America—primarily from Brazil, which as of Sept. 9 had the second-most COVID-19 cases with upwards of 4 million cases and 128,000 deaths.

There’s the possibility to pivot to acquiring beans from Africa or Asia, and while the diehards love the flavour profile of what Hammer has delivered to this point, Peake reasons that customers are also interested in trying new things.

“We just need you to give us a little of your grace and flexibility and we are going to get back to normal as soon as we can,” he said.

Another supply challenge, similar to those restaurants have faced, is that the lining for its compostable bags has been hard to get, so Hammer has had to explain why its packaging isn’t the usual.

While there’s no opportunity for a coffee company to shift its supply locally, it’s what Squamish’s State B Beverage Co. did.

When starting the line of craft cannabis beverages, owner Kelly Ann Woods had initially sought out exotic ingredients like callamansi, acai and bergamot, but because of supply chain uncertainty in the pandemic and beyond, made the change.

“From a business standpoint, to a supply-chain standpoint, to an environment standpoint to a local economic standpoint, we are being forced to localize as much as possible,” says Woods, who also owns Gillespies Fine Spirits. “I’m feeling this innate desire to stay close to home. That’s across the board.

“I love exotic ingredients, but man, the flavour of a really nice, fresh raspberry is equal to if not superior than a lot of other options.”

Woods says the timeline to launch the line, by early next year at the latest, was not affected by the change.

The dining experience

On the restaurant side, Restaurant Association of Whistler (RAW) president Eric Griffith explains that local eateries reopened into a better-than-anticipated situation after the shutdowns. However, with shoulder season approaching and the early winter situation, the local industry’s cash cow, only recently gaining some clarity with Whistler Blackcomb’s reopening plans, the next several months are critical.

“December is crucial for training and hiring and getting people up and ready for the season,” Griffith, also the owner of Alta Bistro and its wine director, says. “Those three weeks at the beginning of the season are crucial to surviving the winter. If you don’t have any business and you can’t afford to bring people on and train them, and you have no customers to do so, I don’t know how the resort is going to go from standstill to full tilt.”

Speaking in mid-August, Griffith said no members of the Restaurant Association permanently closed and all were trying to make a go of it under new restrictions, including embracing the increased outdoor patio space now allowed. However, the temporary patio extensions are only allowed until Oct. 31.

Taking the lead on reopening, Griffith recalls, were the chain restaurants in town, and the spirit of collaboration was apparent.

Earls, for example, got mandates from head office regarding measures such as installing plexiglass. After hearing what those processes were like, local, independent businesses had some information on which they could base their decisions.

“They went through the hurdles first,” Griffith says. “The feedback was great, because then they would say, ‘This is what we experienced. These are the challenges we experienced. Here are some things that we did that maybe weren’t necessary or where we overshot, or here’s where we undershot.

“That dialogue was crucial for a lot of people to get open and do it safely.”

As many restaurants were busier than expected, Griffith reports that several have felt challenged by workers not wanting to step over the CERB line (The $2,000-a-month payments put in place by the federal government for people out of work due to the pandemic). As well, while health and safety protocols have changed to avoid risk of transmission from employees, paid sick days have not been implemented.

“It just comes down to who’s going to foot the bill,” Griffith says. “We’d love to be able to be in a position where you can afford to have some of your staff sick and still run the restaurant and have their wages paid, but I don’t really know if that’s going to be a reality for our industry right now, given how tight the margins are and the cost of our goods.”

While Griffith says that, to this point, supply chains haven’t been affected in a lasting way—some vegetable orders have been impacted from time to time by labour issues, and beef access was briefly limited during an outbreak of COVID-19 amongst workers at a Cargill meat plant—he’s anticipating other lasting changes to the industry, as gathering people will look and feel different indefinitely.

While restaurants are able to manage for the time being because of government support, the businesses will eventually have to find other ways to stay afloat, and that could include increasing prices.

“The restaurant layouts will change. The way that landlords and restaurants, the lessees, the way that we deal with each other based on square footage, I think all these things are going to slowly evolve. They’re going to look at different ways to design restaurants,” he says. “It’s not just the restaurants. It’s the way that people act. I think that people are going to be more cautious in these situations, in groups of people that they’re not sure about.

“Supply and demand would say that prices are going to have to go up in restaurants and that’s something we’ve been facing for a long time based on our cost of goods and labour percentages.”

On the positive side of the ledger, Griffith says that he’s noticed in his own restaurant, which has long focused on hyper-local fare, that there’s an increased desire to boost friends and neighbours.

“Your regulars come back and say, ‘We’ve been waiting for you to reopen,’” he says. “It’s a good feeling.”

Griffith notes that Alta Bistro is purchasing only B.C. wine at this time to help those ventures also feeling the pinch of fewer diners.

Up in Pemberton, Mayor Richman is also the proprietor of Town Square Restaurant, which he says has experienced difficulty serving members of the public who have different levels of comfort at this time.

He also notes that while the food and beverage supplies have been generally fine, though he also experienced escalating prices for meat products due to COVID-19 at processing plants, there has been a noticeable challenge in acquiring take-out food packaging at times.

Richman adds that restaurateurs are going to have to find adaptations going forward. For example, Town Square employs QR codes instead of physical menus, which has had some side benefits.

“It’s allowed us to react to some of the supply changes, or some of the demands of customers, because you can have a new menu every day if you want,” he says. “If you have an item on your menu that all of a sudden becomes really expensive because of whatever reason … you can remove it, you can change the price, you can add a new item every day without going to print.

“It’s a small example, but it allows us to be a little more flexible and a little more nimble.”

Retail details

Grocery markets were one of the few places members of the public could not avoid in the early, confusing days of the pandemic, with employees working to the bone to restock shelves as quickly as they were emptied and clean, clean, clean in those first few weeks.

“The level of cleaning has gone up and will probably stay there,” Nesters Market manager Bruce Stewart says.

As for overall retail trends, Stewart says American tourists led the charge in terms of purchasing the store’s more expensive, premium products, so without them around, there have been adaptations required to serve primarily the local market that’s feeling a pinch in its pocketbook.

“We’re putting more items on sale that are a little more everyday stuff because people aren’t spending as much money as normal. We definitely have seen a difference in terms of what sells,” he said. “We’re seeing more sales of our medium-priced and lower-priced items as opposed to our high, high priced items.”

As for supplies, Stewart says that apart from a stock interruption at the beginning of the pandemic, where mainstays such as toilet paper, baking supplies, and some canned goods were flying off the shelves, the situation has been mostly stable.

Interestingly, international products from Italy and Spain have generally come through fine, but the hiccup comes from closer to home, from the U.S. or even from the odd Canadian company.

“We are seeing many items out of the States being shorted to us,” he says. “It depends on the company, but canned products out of the States—I don’t know if they’re having a problem getting aluminum—but many canned products have become a struggle to get.”

The big picture

With the odd exception in a detail here or there, the changes felt throughout the industry are not unique to Whistler or the Sea to Sky corridor.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, the director of Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab, has businesses of all types responding to the upheaval caused by COVID-19.

“Generally speaking, people will consume food very differently,” he says.

People are preparing and processing their own food more, Charlebois says, as evidenced by the greater interest in gardening.

Meanwhile, a July survey conducted by the lab found that rates of vegetarianism jumped from 1.5 to 2.5 per cent in a manner of months, while pescatarianism and vegan diets also saw increases. The results come after several COVID-19 outbreaks in processing plants, as well as reports of producers dumping or destroying surplus product, though Charlebois says the industry structure, not individual producers, is to blame.

“COVID really has made some lifestyle sectors look bad,” he says. “I expect that some people may question their choices and are willing to look elsewhere beyond meat products.”

With a far greater segment of the workforce telecommuting and people working from home, businesses such as coffee shops and retailers will be adversely affected.

Charlebois says the market will look significantly different a year or more down the line, but it’s impossible to predict the exact implications.

At any rate, with Charlebois’ projection that the food service industry is expected to shrink by 23 per cent in a year, the negative effect will creep in. The 2019 Foodservice Facts report released by Restaurants Canada before the pandemic had forecasted the food service industry to break $100 billion in 2021.