The Vancouver Canucks’ unexpected playoff run in the National Hockey League’s Western Conference Edmonton “bubble” has reignited Metro Vancouver fan interest, but the business impact on local bars and restaurants has been uneven.
A BIV survey of Vancouver-area sports bars and restaurants has found that, while many locations have flourished with “packed houses” filling the roughly 50% capacity allowed under social-distancing guidelines, a few have seen no customer uptick.
There appears to two main factors determining the service sector winners and losers: location and demographics.
On the location front, there’s perhaps no one who sees the discrepancy in business as clearly as Trevor Poirier, whose two Yagger’s Restaurant and Sports Bar locations include a downtown locale and a more neighbourhood-centric spot in Kitsilano.
“Definitely seeing a boost in Kits,” said Poirier, Yagger’s co-owner. “The neighbourhoods are willing to go out within their local areas, and that’s definitely helping out. Downtown, it’s incremental. [People] are not going to the bar after work because they are not at the office anymore.”
Aside from the lack of office patrons, he said downtown locations are suffering from a dearth of tourists, and, in some cases, a lack of outdoor space for temporary patios. That means Yagger’s downtown cannot expand on its 50% indoor capacity limit by adding a patio. In comparison, its Kitsilano location, where indoor capacity was reduced to 43 seats from 80, was able to open a patio that added 18 seats. Both indoor and outdoor seats are almost always filled for a Canucks playoff game.
The benefits of having a community-based pub in a residential neighbourhood during post-COVID times are also readily apparent to Robert Phillips, manager at Castaway Bar and Kitchen at the edge of Kitsilano and Point Grey. He said the restaurant has been filled to its maximum 50% capacity during weekend Canucks games and only slightly less during weekday tilts. And while the Canucks playoff run has been a boon, it has provided an occasion for the local community to support neighbourhood businesses.
“Being part of the neighbourhood has been much more of a survivable setup than having a downtown bar or an airport bar,” Phillips said.
Brendan Gray, co-owner of the East Side Craft House, was hesitant to speculate on sporting events driving his business, because he said the crowds anticipated from professional soccer and baseball leagues restarting their seasons earlier in the summer did not materialize.
However, hockey has been a different story. Gray said the bar, which is open to 33% capacity, regularly fills up during games. The restaurant also reports a healthy 20% to 30% spike in takeout/delivery sales during game times.
Ciara Sanders, night manager at the West End’s Park Pub, added that the Canucks’ run has injected a healthy dose of enthusiasm into the local food-services scene – something that has been sorely missed since the beginning of the pandemic.
“It’s so nice just to be working in this atmosphere and experiencing this energy, so it’s been really, really good for us.
But business at some restaurants has not increased, even though they are in a residential neighbourhood, and patron demographics may be to blame.
Lily Lee, owner of South Vancouver’s Cravings Restaurant and Sports Bar, said that while her bar has clients as young as 25, many are also in their 40s or 60s. With COVID-19 being especially deadly for the elderly, Lee said many of her patrons have chosen to watch games from home.
As for the future of the sports bar business as the Canucks’ run inevitably ends, many are already looking to the start of the National Football League season in early September to fill the gap.
“We are expecting football to be a major driving force starting in the fall, which will be important because we are a patio restaurant – and you will probably see a drop off in patio business in the fall,” Phillips said. “And because we can no longer have big events and big parties like we did last winter, we are definitely going to rely more on sports.”
The challenge, said Gray, will be that the typical sports bar atmosphere of filled rooms, loud crowds and interactions with strangers will be gone until the pandemic is resolved.
“Football will definitely help add to time slots like Sundays, Monday nights and Thursday night – at least that’s what I’m hoping,” he said. “But it is difficult to deliver that exciting experience at a sports bar when you are limited to having only 23 people. That vibe is what a lot of people are looking for.”