Caffe Teatro owners Wayne Empey and Thanh Pham with banh mi sandwiches at the popular restaurant on the corner of Broughton and Blanshard Streets. The couple is one example of independent owners who have struggled to compete in the saturated Victoria restaurant scene.

Caffe Teatro owners Wayne Empey and Thanh Pham with banh mi sandwiches at the popular restaurant on the corner of Broughton and Blanshard Streets. The couple is one example of independent owners who have struggled to compete in the saturated Victoria restaurant scene.

Despite tough challenges, restaurants thrive in city

Casual Victoria eateries find their niche in a saturated marketplace

When Wayne Empey and his wife Thanh Pham purchased a tired cafe on the corner of Broughton and Blanshard streets, they knew they were wading into a volatile industry.

Four years later, Caffe Teatro has come out ahead of the economic downtown by providing Vietnamese cuisine to the suit-and-tie crowd, but Empey’s upbeat persona fades momentarily as he discusses staying afloat in Victoria’s saturated food service industry.

“We only manage to survive because my wife and I run the place,” he said. “The naiveté of people to open up restaurants today, I don’t know who’s opening up these new places. Where do they get the money?”

There are 534 active food service licences in the City of Victoria, including 26 new licences for 2013. Those numbers don’t include food trucks or grandfathered food cart licences.

Despite dwindling tourism, the ill-fated harmonized sales tax, a chill on alcohol sales from stricter drinking-driving laws and a 24 per cent bump in payroll due to minimum wage increases, Victoria’s restaurant scene continues to thrive.

“People are still satisfying that urge to go out and be social, but they’re just doing it in smaller, tangible ways,” said Bob Parotta, Victoria chair of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservice Association.

Restaurants that have closed in recent months, like Rick’s Grill and Sauce, represent a North American-wide trend of larger establishments losing out to “fast-casual” food, Parotta said.

“There’s just a surge in the breakfast and casual places right now due to economic times.”

B.C. restaurants lost an estimated $1.5 billion in food sales during the reign of the HST, according to the Canadian Food Restaurant and Foodservices Association.

In April, the first month after the HST was abolished, food sales shot up between six to nine per cent across the Capital Region, Parotta said.

“It was a tough few years, because the government didn’t give us the time to adjust to any of those changes,” he said. “But we’ve all learned to work with it now, we have taster programs for wines, we can plan drink menus so by the end of a meal, the customer is still under .05 (blood alcohol level). We just need to be consulted beforehand.”

The uphill climb for mom-and-pop food establishments like Caffe Teatro was the norm even prior to the recession, said Frank Bourree, principal of Chemistry Consulting Group and expert in food service trends.

“It’s super competitive here, we’ve got more and more chains in the market,” Bourree said. “What has changed is fast food is a much bigger piece of the market today than 20 years ago.”

Empey suggests the city could restrict restaurant density downtown to support existing restaurants and avoid over-servicing a finite business population.

It’s great to have options, but it’s too dense,” he said. “There should be a moratorium on restaurant zoning on certain city blocks.”

Coun. Shellie Gudgeon flatly rejected the idea, but said the City’s next big food service policy will likely be zoning restrictions for food trucks.

“We are saturated (with restaurants), there’s no doubt. But as an industry, we need to step it up on all levels,  said Gudgeon, who also owns Il Terrazzo Ristorante. “The tough economic times have shown us that we can’t just open the doors and wheel people in, we have to have a quality product. Five, 10 years ago it was far too easy.”

Parotta points to food festivals like Taste and Victoria’s inaugural Spot Prawn Festival earlier this year as indicators of a healthy appetite for more food-centric events in the Capital Region.

“Everybody’s talking about a definite mark of improvement this summer,” he said. “I think this is going to be a good year.”

 

 

 

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Michael Demers, performing here as a member of The Lonely, died May 1 after a year-long battle with leukemia. (Photo by Benji Duke)
Victoria music community mourning Michael Demers

Veteran singer-songwriter, co-founder of The Lonely dies at 63 due to leukemia

Victoria police say the photo they circulated of an alleged cat thief was actually a woman taking her own cat to the vet. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Victoria police circulated photo of alleged cat thief actually woman with her own cat

Police learned the she didn’t steal Penelope the cat, and was actually taking her cat to the vet

Allayah Yoli Thomas had recently turned 12 years old when she died of a suspected drug overdose April 15. (Courtesy of Adriana Londono)
Suspected overdose death of Saanich girl, 12, speaks to lack of supports, says mom

Allayah Yoli Thomas was found dead by her friend the morning of April 15

The Malahat SkyWalk will open to visitors in July 2021. (Malahat SkyWalk photo)
Malahat SkyWalk will open to visitors this July

Highly anticipated attraction will take guests 250m above sea level

Illegal goods seized in the simultaneous April 23 busts in Saanich and Sooke. (Courtesy of West Shore RCMP)
RCMP drug busts net trucks, cocaine, cash and Hells Angels gear

Simultaneous searches coordinated between West Shore, Saanich and Sooke police

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O’Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of May 4

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Do you plan to travel on the Victoria Day long weekend?

It’s the unofficial start to the summer season. A time of barbecues,… Continue reading

People line up for COVID-19 vaccination at a drop-in clinic at Cloverdale Recreation Centre on Wednesday, April 27, 2021. Public health officials have focused efforts on the Fraser Health region. (Aaron Hinks/Peace Arch News)
B.C. reports first vaccine-induced blood clot; 684 new COVID cases Thursday

Two million vaccine doses reached, hospital cases down

More than 6,000 camping reservations in British Columbia were cancelled as a result of a provincial order limiting travel between health regions. (Unsplash)
1 in 4 camping reservations cancelled in B.C. amid COVID-19 travel restrictions

More than 6,500 BC Parks campsite reservations for between April 19 and May 25 have been revoked

B.C. average home price and sales level to 2023, showing steep drop in sales expected next year. (Central 1)
Forecast calls for B.C. home sales to ‘explode,’ then drop off

Average price to rise another 10% in 2021, credit unions say

Members of Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. (File photo)
B.C.-wide #DayOfMusic to feature 100-plus free virtual concerts May 15

‘Our colleagues across the province have figured out new ways to perform and connect,’ VSO boss says

Two passengers were recently fined thousands of dollars after they faked their pre-flight COVID-19 test results. (Paul Clarke/Black Press)
2 passengers in Canada fined thousands for faking pre-flight COVID-19 tests

The government issued a warning Thursday to others thinking of doing the same – do it and you’ll be ordered to pay

Most Read