Caring for each other feels good - but it's also good for business
It feels like yesterday when I recall my pre-crisis day to day: gallivanting through city streets, tasting, talking and writing about wine on the daily - a reality I took for granted.
In February, I'd just returned home to Toronto after a trip to Vancouver, where I'd hosted my wine conference, the Sensory Symposium. My wine club, Crushable, was growing steadily, private tastings filled my calendar, and freelance writing kept me busy.
Rumours of the coronavirus had started to emerge, but I felt confident I'd be ok - even if there was a loss in one channel of my business, I knew I could rely on another arm. I'd endured past crises and fared well.
Until, the world seemingly shut down in one fell swoop. The Sensory Symposium was suspended indefinitely, all my private tastings cancelled, and three of my weekly writing columns put on pause. This was a big hit to my business, and a hard pill to swallow - what was I going to do? I did what any terrified adult human would - I called my parents.
However, the coddling I was seeking, I didn't find. A growing suspicion that my Father did not support my career in hospitality became evident, upon his questioning of my decision to work in the industry at all, one is that is particularly vulnerable to downturns. Suggestions of returning to law school reverberated distantly in my ears, as fear and shame seeped into my brain, shrouding me in a nebulous cloud of dread. I felt sick, and wasn't sure whether I should cry or scream.
I wasn't the only one feeling this way. Cody Dodds, GM of the Mackenzie Room and Say Mercy! in Vancouver, BC, shared a similar sentiment when we spoke recently: "The Saturday night before we closed I wasn't in a good place. Seeing my dining room empty for the first time since we opened brought on more anxiety than I had felt in years. I had my version of a break down, which typically includes enough alcohol to sedate a large animal. It isn't something I am proud of, but it is the truth."
Consumer reports show alcohol consumption is exploding, with retail sales rivaling levels typically sold only during the holidays. With forced isolation comes compounded levels of stress, obesity and alcoholism.
Living in a vacuum wreaks havoc. Pleasantries at the grocery store become a strangely welcomed exchange, fueled by total and utter social starvation.
Prateek Arora, proprietor of restaurant Qla in New Delhi, expanded upon this when I reached out to him for comment."Nothing is permanent! We as humans are smart and adapt fast. I am surprised how a virus has turned the whole world upside down. People are finally understanding how important it is to simply sit, talk and understand each other. Conversations are richer and more fulfilling now. The very nature of hospitality is now being questioned. We are a business about people and this virus has taken away the very essence from us."
It's a resounding comment I continue to hear. Despite physical distance, we are connecting more than ever. I've spoken with friends, old and new, via video chat. Conversations that have left me wondering: would I have spoken to these individuals if not for a pandemic?
Collectively, we're facing introspection and self growth, bringing to mind, how can we apply these revelations to our industry?
Alissa Miller, of Enterprise North Canterbury in Rangiora, New Zealand, echoed these sentiments when we were chatting via DM on Instagram recently. "I'm surprised at how ill-prepared we were for this. I feel for the business community who have been left in a sort of limbo. Small F&B businesses are really suffering because they haven’t got a contactless direct to consumer channel. My total ignorance to pandemics and unpreparedness has also come to light. I felt just as shocked and unprepared when our city was hit by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake. I feel like we could all benefit from a bit more crisis planning."
But how do we prepare when uncertainty is our new normal? Guilt has become an emotion I experience daily: I feel I should be doing more. Yet, psychologists advise against this narrative - we are living in unprecedented times, and need to be careful not to punish ourselves with hypothetical scenarios, like failing to write an award winning novel while in quarantine.
Friend and colleague Jenna Foster of Heirloom Vine Imports in Toronto, told me how her business has pivoted, and as such, thrived during this time: "It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster - very hard at the beginning but every day seems to get more normal, and getting used to different habits and a totally new routine. Professionally my weakness has always been the desire to move at the speed of light, always wanting to do more projects and build something better. Now, fortunately with the time at home I have had the chance to sit down and appreciate and fine tune the little things."
It's as though we are learning to be human again. The more we embrace this new pace, the more we become attuned to the things we forgot we knew.
Jeff Osborne shared a similar thought when I asked him how things were going. Jeff is a well respected sommelier in Toronto, and founder of JPO Endeavour: "I think we’re all going to take a lot of things in life less for granted moving forward. I would like to continue dedicating one night per week to making unique, delicious and time consuming meals from scratch with my girlfriend. The learning, enjoyment and time spent together has really been a highlight that I would like to hang on to. I will admit, I am a classic ‘late adopter’ in life and these times require foresight and prudence. For the quick and creative, there is an abundance of opportunity."
Food and wine is inherently competitive, and the "support local" trope often results in eye rolls - international wine is still revered as sexier than Canadian wine. Yet, the crisis has forced us to re-evaluate where we put our dollar. Support large conglomerates, and that is what will remain once this is all a distant memory.
Aaron Godard, winemaker of Scout Vineyard shares the overwhelming support they've received in the last month: "We were sure the Covid-19 crisis was going to bring sales to a halt, but we didn't expect that a few restaurants would quickly take action and shift their business. This allowed us to maintain many of our sales. So I guess what initially seemed like a weakness turned out to be a revelation. The restaurants we rely on are generous, resourceful and creative, and when their backs are up against the wall, they not only found a way to keep their business afloat, but found ways to continue supporting farmers and winegrowers. It shouldn't really come as a surprise, but it is revealing that caring for each other like this not only feels good, but is actually good for business."
Through new strategies, Cody Dodds was able to keep business steady by unveiling a takeout service: "We launched our "Staff Meal" initiative, as the only logical thing for us to do during this time was cook. Since then, we have been able to add 12 businesses to "Staff Meal", hire back cooks, donate thousands of meals to frontline works, donate hundreds of meals to unemployed hospitality workers and keep our neighbourhood nourished with meals ranging from $5-$10. During times like this all you can focus on is doing good. This is our way of doing good."
While the future of the food and wine industry remains unknown, the last month affirms beliefs that are not new. Those who prevail, pivot quickly. We are scrambling to learn how to take new approaches - strategies we should have been comfortable with long before the crisis. One thing is for certain: openness to change is an inevitability we all have to learn to accept. Lean in, listen, and wait.