Tushar Singh expected a thriving summer at his bustling bar and restaurant in West Kelowna this year in August.
Instead, when a massive forest fire forced the shutdown of not only West Kelowna but also much of the central Okanagan, everything changed.
The devastating McDoughall Creek Wildfires, which led to mass evacuation and destruction of nearly 190 properties in the Okanagan Valley, brought on a decline in business normally only seen in the winter season for Singh and his team at The Landing Kitchen + Bar. That forced them to make tough decisions as a result of the climate catastrophe.
“The slow season came early for us this year and reduced our sales by 50 per cent. We had to let go of our employees in September to ensure the business’ survival,” he said.
Singh’s restaurant wasn’t alone in this struggle. In the tourist-heavy city of Kelowna, a number of restaurants and bars had to grapple with an unprecedented decline in sales.
This decline is documented in a recent report from Statistics Canada, revealing that sales at food and drink operations in B.C. experienced a notable dip of 1.1 per cent in August and September, resulting in a revenue decline of about $86 million. The hardest hit were full-service and limited-service restaurants, which together bore the brunt of the wildfire’s aftermath.
B.C’s restaurant association tried to help out as much as possible.
The B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association adopted an innovative approach, creating a website encouraging people to purchase gift cards from these establishments, which they could either keep or donate to the firefighters battling the blazes. This initiative not only bolstered restaurants but also supported the individuals on the front lines.
“Almost 50 per cent of the restaurant sales are based on tourism. That is where they make a lot of money. With that gone, we had restaurants calling us and saying it had been several days since they have had a customer. It was disastrous,” said the CEO of the organization, Ian Tostenson.
He added that building strong relationships with local residents, engaging them in the business’s offerings, and creating a sense of community involvement not only stabilizes revenue during seasonal downturns but also establishes a reliable customer base. This foundation ensures continued support, even when external factors, like wildfires or other crises, disrupt the regular tourist flow.
Singh’s restaurant adopted a different strategy to address the revenue downturn. The managers chose to streamline the menu by eliminating less profitable dishes and by placing emphasis on items that are not only easy to prepare and store but also have an extended shelf life.
Those kinds of strategies will be needed more in the future as wildfires become an increasingly common threat due to climate change, says one expert.
“When those tourist dollars stop coming in, it is very difficult to recover that lost revenue,” said restaurant consultant Spencer Michael. “You could put together some way to entice the locals but that is not going to be enough.”
“The only thing you can do is maximize your profitability so when something like this happens, you have a bit of a safety net.”