What do you do if you’re sitting on 20,000 oysters, but restaurants aren’t buying? That’s the dilemma that Vasken Redwanly of seafood supplier L’Écailler faced when most of his fine dining clients closed suddenly because of the novel coronavirus.
“People need to be informed that not just restaurants and employees are suffering, but suppliers as well,” says Redwanly, who can normally move those 200 boxes easily thanks to his more than 25 restaurant customers, which include Tuck Shop, Joe Beef, Cadet, Majestique, and Le Club Chasse et Pêche.
To sell them quickly (oysters can usually last about a month from the time they’re harvested, he says), he’s reached out to friends and family, and posted several times on the public a large Facebook group for restaurant and bar staff, looking for people to take the oysters off his hands for $50 a case (that’s 50 cents an oyster).
“Thanks to all the workers in the group, I was able to spread the word. Without them, the financial losses would have taken a hard hit on my company,” he says.
His restaurant clients also helped him out, with chefs and owners giving him contact lists of individuals they thought would be interested. Even other seafood and shellfish distributors — his competitors — helped.
“The whole gesture of us all working together and supporting one another came as a big surprise with all that is going on with this new pandemic,” says Redwanly.
He’s spent the last week delivering oysters to each individual customer personally, to minimize exposure. He also disinfects each box before handing it off.
Redwanly isn’t the only supplier having to get creative. Michaël Loyer of Les 400 Pieds de Champignon had already started selling his comb tooth and black pearl mushrooms through Lufa Farms, but has now expanded to butcher shops and specialty stores, including oyster mushrooms at Charcuterie Viens and enokitake at Épicerie Conserva.
Gabrielle Verville of small produce supplier Ferme ChâteauBar, which works with a number of upscale Montreal restaurants including Mile-Ex restaurant Le Diplomate, says that while they’ll only start selling their vegetables in May or June, they’re already thinking about alternatives to restaurants, including solidarity markets or grocery stores.
“Some people are even thinking of offering home delivery, but that requires a lot of time management and an enormous transportation cost,” she says.
They’ll also be relying more heavily on their farm kiosk and their stall at two farmer’s markets, as well as prepaid cards for produce to encourage customer loyalty – a bit like a weekly summer vegetable box, but customers choose the produce they want.
Anything leftover will go into transformed products, which they’ll sell at Christmas markets, assuming Christmas markets are permitted this year.
It’s not just suppliers dealing with excess produce, though; shuttered restaurants have also had to figure out what to do with leftover food.
Jonathan Metcalfe of St-Henri restaurant Tuck Shop says that the day after closing, he and chef Theo Lerikos assembled their perishables into 25 care packages for staff.
“The care packages included a variety of fresh produce, both green and heartier root vegetables, lots of mushrooms, packaged steaks, homemade pasta, eggs, milk, butter, some cheese, toilet paper, citrus fruit, and pomegranate – lots of stuff we were using for the menu, some prepared but mostly raw,” he says.
“Our service team and kitchen managers were also given a copy of [major New York restaurateur] Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table, which we are reading together through our online book club.”
Restaurants that have transitioned to takeout and delivery services have had an easier time managing potential food waste without losing as much money, especially smaller ones that already have to be extra careful with inventory.
Chef-owner of Le Diplomate Aaron Langille says his restaurant was fortunate to not have to waste food, by switching to take-out options.
“Between the Saturday where everything hit the fan and our next opening day, our inventory easily transitioned to the new concept. So apart from 400 grams of cheese, we didn’t lose any ingredients.”
To make sure he can stay in business, though, he’s offering 20 percent off bottles of natural wine with any food order from Le Diplomate’s condensed menu.
For him, delivery doesn’t make sense for now — there’s not enough money in it without wine sales.
But he’s not complaining about having to close his dining room. “I imagine that suppliers and restauranteurs would be more comfortable losing clients than to be responsible for making people sick or worse,” he says.
“It’s a hard time for everyone, naturally, and we’re just all trying to do our part while keeping our heads above water. For all the good work that the feds and Quebec have done, they still haven’t offered any aide that would help a small restaurant owner or a lot of restaurant staff. It would be nice if staying open was more of an option than a necessity.”