Why Canada loves independent restaurants
Column by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
When we decided to open the voting up to the public for the Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Guide I was afraid of two things: 1. We would receive so many votes that we would be up for days and nights counting and recounting them all, and 2. The voting would be hijacked by a giant corporation and, living by the rules of our own creation, we would be bound to list among the best restaurants in the country an establishment that had strength in numbers and dollars but not in passion for its product.
One of those fears did come true, but it’s the one we would prefer to contend with. Canadians have proven to be enthusiastic and inspired supporters of their favourite eateries, evidenced by the thousands of votes Vacay.ca received as it asked the nation to participate in naming the country’s best restaurants. But the most interesting outcome of the public balloting may be who did not receive any votes at all.
There was not one email or Twitter message sent to us commending a franchise of a corporate restaurant chain. Oliver & Bonacini, the Toronto-based owner of such restaurants as Canoe and Auberge du Pommier, was the only major corporate enterprise to receive public support. No Keg or Milestone’s or McDonald’s or Wendy’s.
That’s not to say burger joints, pizzerias and pubs didn’t compel patrons to send in votes. Una Pizza & Wine in Calgary, Cheese Curds Gourmet Burgers and Poutiniere in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and Toronto’s Burger’s Priest were among the casual, low-priced eateries whose fans notified Vacay.ca that they were deserving of a place among the Top 50. We will soon know whether those restaurants make it; runner-up establishments will be named daily beginning on April 25, leading to the announcement of the Top 50 on May 1.
With the votes now counted and the most definitive survey of the nation’s restaurant scene about to be revealed, the results will impact where we dine. More than 60% of Canadians eat out once a week, according to a 2012 report by Visa Canada. The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA) reports that 40.2% of citizens rank going to a restaurant as their preferred activity to enjoy with friends. In a $60-billion industry, learning which restaurants connect with individuals is crucial for improving the product offered, as well as helping Canadians to decide where they should spend their money.
Here’s what I think the public voting outcome means about Canadians’ tastes.
- Restaurants run by small-business owners engender much more loyalty than corporate franchises that spend big dollars on advertising and prepare menus targeted at the mass market.
- Many of those small-business owners are leading a local food movement that is changing the way we consume meals. There’s more concern for nutrition, food safety and organic produce than ever, and we are only at the beginning of this movement. In years to come, large corporate restaurants that continue to buy in quantity rather than opting to support local farmers and food suppliers will lose market share to chefs who prepare better quality food with better quality products and charge approximately the same price.
- Most importantly, the food is superior — often far superior — and more innovative at restaurants where the chef is also among the ownership group. That chef is often the face of the enterprise and will be keen to the fact his or her reputation is at stake with every diner who pulls up a chair. Independent restaurants are going to care for your satisfaction and that personal attention has resonated in the Vacay.ca survey. Feeling as if you are visiting someone’s home when you dine out is a theme that has come across in the voting, no matter the price point. Restaurants from New Brunswick’s Saint John Ale House, where most meals can be purchased for less than $20, to Ruby Watchco in Toronto ($49 for a three-course meal) to Atelier in Ottawa ($110 for 12 courses) all drew praise for the homeyness of their atmosphere. While these restaurants put a premium on service and top-quality dining experiences, corporate enterprises such as East Side Mario’s and Casey’s (both owned by Prime Restaurants Inc.) have focused the last two years on expanding into larger and less intimate spaces to “maximize revenues” and increasing their television advertising spend by “four-fold.”
- Service is also more elegant and gracious at independent restaurants because passionate chefs and restaurateurs are more likely to instill a sense of pride in their staff. The best of them also recruit service-industry professionals they admire. Likewise, servers and bartenders are more concerned about their jobs if they are working for their relatives or friends, as tends to be the case at independent eateries. The same is true of the kitchen staff, and isn’t that the most important thing you want to know when you dine out? That the people preparing your food are vested in your satisfaction of it?
To me, what the Vacay.ca voting shows is Canadians who still choose to dine at large corporate chain restaurants must only do so because they want the security of knowing what they’re getting for their money. That sense of familiarity comes through advertising and the corporate chains’ fortune to afford a nationwide presence. Aside from a handful of famous restaurants like Vancouver’s Vij’s and Montreal’s Joe Beef, independent restaurants don’t have name recognition across the country or even outside of their neighbourhoods. They have to rely on word of mouth, which in essence is what the Vacay.ca vote was about.
There are no luxury restaurant chains in the country, but in the mid-price range ($25 dinner entrees) and lower, corporate restaurants and independent restaurants are in fierce competition. Thing is, corporate restaurants can’t compete on quality, service, hospitality or nutritional value. Yet, they still out-compete small-business owners in profit and revenue (Prime Restaurants earns about $7 million a year). The reason why comes down to the answer to one question: Where should we go to eat?
It’s pondered 17 million times a day in this country. That’s how many visits Canadians make to restaurants, according to the CRFA. If you’ve heard of a place, you’re more likely to give it your business — even if it’s mediocre quality and a poor value choice for your money.
With involvement from Canadians from coast to coast, the Vacay.ca guide to the nation’s best places to dine out gives you a responsibly produced resource to make more informed and more economical choices with your restaurant decisions. As an independent publisher focused on the quality of our content rather than the profit we make from it, we are keenly aware of — and sympathetic to — the challenges of restaurant owners and chefs.
We hope in the next year you visit as many of the restaurants on our list as you can and that you continue you to tell us about your favourite places to dine.
More About Voting for the 2013 Top 50 Restaurants in Canada
Public voting: The Canadian public emailed votes for their favourite restaurants and became eligible for the Foodie of the Year Contest, which includes round-trip airfare, luxury hotel stay and dinner for two at the Top 50 restaurant of the winner’s choice.
Judges: The 34 members of the Vacay.ca Judges Academy voted for between 5-10 restaurants and awarded each of their selections a weighted value. The public votes are added to the judges’ votes to determine the Top 50 Restaurants in Canada. Results will be published on May 1, with runner-up restaurants announced daily between April 25-30.