A full lockdown in Québec came into effect in March with non-essential businesses closing on the 23rd.
To the relief of wine lovers, Société des alcohols du Québec (SAQ), the alcohol monopoly, was deemed essential. Although they did say that local wine sales have soared by 80%, the SAQ won’t give specific numbers about other sales since the beginning of Covid-19. Judging by the long line-up of people waiting to get in stores, consumption must be up by a lot.
From the start, restaurants had permission to sell a bottle of wine along with their take-out food. After speaking to friends in Europe, Martin Juneau, owner of the highly regarded Pastaga restaurant, anticipated the new reality. He closed his restaurants on March 13th, 10 days earlier than the official lockdown, becoming one of the first to turn his place into a takeout hub; he laid off 80% of his staff, but the quick adaptation allowed him to survive.
Bars with a food permit did not enjoy the same privilege. Véronique Rivest, named second-best sommelier in the world in 2013, owns the Soif wine bar in Gatineau. While she has a full kitchen, she had a bar permit, rather than a restaurant permit. This allowed her to serve the person who comes in for a glass of wine but doesn’t want to eat, but it meant that when the pandemic hit, she couldn’t sell wine alongside take-out food. Québec is blessed with many charming neighbourhood wine bars like Soif, which have suffered heavily. Rivest was proactive, and after many phone calls, was told to apply for a restaurant permit, which she got within 24 hours – but only after losing six weeks of business. “The laws have been outdated for a very long time and the pandemic has really shown that,” she says. “The Régie des alcools, des courses et des jeux (RACJ), the organisation giving alcohol licences, need to make some serious changes and I hope this crisis will provoke that.”
Restaurants opened their door again on 15 June, apart from Montreal, where they opened on 22 June. With this came strict regulations; severe fines are imposed if rules are not followed and, in extreme cases, venues can be closed.
In Québec summer is in full swing and the weather has been hot, an ideal opportunity for restaurants with outside spaces to catch up on lost revenues. Inspired by Europe, many streets have become pedestrians only, allowing proprietors to expand their venue on to the street. But with many people still working from home, vacationers exploring the beauty of the countryside, and all of Quebec City and Montreal’s festivals cancelled, tables are not turning as fast and many places remain quiet. Alain Rochard, co-owner of the popular wine bar Rouge Gorge, is one of the lucky ones. He created a cozy space on the street, making customers forget the wide space between tables. “People patiently wait in line until there is a table available. Once they have finished, they get up to leave the space for someone else. The average spent per head has not gone down either,” adds Rochard. “We are amongst the lucky ones, but many are struggling. I suspect 50% won’t survive, especially if we have a second wave and go back to full lockdown in the fall as anticipated.”
The Canadian federal government has been proactive in helping business owners. In addition to offering interest-free loans of C$40,000 ($30,263) without interest, they are subsidizing 75% of employees’ salaries until December. But will these measures be enough to save the vibrant Quebec restaurant industry? Only time will tell. So far, Canada has a total of 120,844 recorded cases and 9,006 deaths: Quebec has been the most heavily hit, with 6ß,813 cases and 5,709 deaths.
Elsewhere in Canada
The provincial alcohol laws have been eased to help businesses survive the pandemic crisis. Since 20 July, all hospitality and tourism operators with liquor licences are allowed for the first time to buy wine at wholesale prices, something they requested long before Covid-19. The issue will be reviewed in March 2021. As in Quebec, restaurants can now sell wine to go, alongside take-out food. Are these changes long term? Once you give something, it is hard to take it back. At least, that’s what British Columbians are hoping.
Barbara Philip MW, the category manager for European wines at the BC Liquor Distribution Branch says that, as elsewhere, she has witnessed a trend towards people buying large quantities of inexpensive big brand wine, with sales of fine wines plunging in March. April sales were also down, mostly due to reduced hours and stores being closed on Sundays. In May and mostly in June, Philip saw a return of premium customers. “People who did not want to stand in line to buy wine drank what they had in their cellar. But eventually, they ran out of the wines they had at home and they came back,” she says.
Canadians have been encouraged to drink local wines by their respective provincial government. I asked Magdalena Kaiser, Director of PR, Wine Marketing Association of Ontario, what was the reality. “While there have been some spikes of increased purchase of local wine through DTC channels, we don’t have specifics on how that has changed from week to week with respect to consumer spending patterns during this pandemic,” she replied, though she added the figures were encouraging – Ontario’s VQA wines had a 14.6% year to date volume increase at the LCBO. “Like many Canadians, Ontarians are staying close to home and seem to be looking for more local.”