Opinion: After red tape, COVID and inflation, local businesses need your support

Co-owner David Egan is seen at the Transit Hotel in Edmonton, on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021. The historic hotel was transformed into Transit Smokehouse & BBQ by Egan and his business partner.
Co-owner David Egan is seen at the Transit hotel in Edmonton, on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021. The historic hotel was transformed into Transit Smokehouse & BBQ by Egan and his business partner. Photo by Ian Kucerak /Postmedia

Everyone is grappling with crippling inflation right now that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, including large hikes to all of our utilities, groceries and gas bills, without wages catching up. Small businesses, particularly restaurants, are no different.

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Being a restaurant owner myself that recently renovated the historic Transit hotel in northeast Edmonton, it sometimes felt that we couldn’t catch a break.

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First came the pandemic, then permit delays from the City of Edmonton that stemmed from the city’s HVAC department essentially not believing or understanding the UL 197 classification for our low-temperature smoker. This indicates that it does not produce grease-laden vapours, or an open flame. We applied in summer of 2020, and the city employees only bothered to make a site visit in spring of 2021. In their documentation, despite being told numerous times, they still listed that the smoker produced an open flame.

We were finally granted our permits by August 2021, only after going to the news about our delays that resulted in opening our doors a full 10 months later than we had planned, and budgeted for.

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We opened in the early stages of the Delta wave after the restrictions exemption program (REP) went into effect in the fall. Despite that, we were doing OK, and for a couple months in the fall, we may have even eked out a small profit. That all changed in January for the Omicron wave. Though dine-in was able to continue, most just stopped eating out.

Although things got very close to forcing us to call it quits, we were able to make it to March when restrictions were eased again. Though business picked up a little bit, it was nowhere near what it was in December despite our positive reviews. Any modest gains still didn’t come close to making up for our horrible winter though.

Then came the inflation crisis. Everyone was faced with a huge increase in both cost of living, and doing business. Over the last year, the wholesale price of our most popular dish, certified Angus smoked beef brisket doubled. We were forced to increase prices, but couldn’t make up for it all. This resulted in our best-selling item becoming what’s known as a loss-leader, where we take a loss, hoping to make up for it with the more profitable sides, drinks, et cetera.

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Despite our initial apprehension, we began using a delivery app as well. Though user-friendly, and with a large customer base, they are very expensive for both the consumer and supplier. Many may not realize that, in addition to the delivery fees, restaurants are also charged up to 35 per cent for using the company’s platform. Therefore, many restaurants that were forced to close to dine-in customers actually lost money on their sales when exclusively using the delivery apps.

Now, not only are we faced with unprecedented input costs, but we also now have fewer customers due to the consumer struggling with inflation and cutting back their discretionary spending. Due to our great reviews and dedicated customers that don’t want to lose their Transit hotel again, the handful of regulars we now have might come half as often because they simply can’t afford it.

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We don’t blame anyone for this; in fact, both I and my business partner, being homeowners ourselves with young families, we completely understand. But everyone that has their favourite restaurants or shops that perhaps they haven’t visited a whole lot in the last couple years. I can tell you almost universally they are hurting and need your help, because if we don’t support them, they may not be around in the coming months!

This is why we need to support local wherever we can. The fast-food giants are doing great right now, their labour and food costs are traditionally very low due to their high sales volumes and buying power. It’s the little guys that need help.

Even if it’s not us, please consider supporting your local restaurant in your community, because I don’t know about you, but the world looks awfully boring if the only options for eating out in the future are the ones with a drive-thru window.

David Egan is co-owner of the Transit Smokehouse & BBQ.

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