Restaurants jockey for business-lunch clientele

Suburban chains aim to eat into pre-pandemic prestige of downtown bistros

Earls owner Stan Fuller (right) with Earls Ambleside Beach manager Marshall Fuller. Earls’ business in the suburbs has rebounded faster than at its downtown locations  | Chung Chow

Downtown Vancouver restaurant owners were jubilant earlier this month when Victoria lifted health restrictions to allow large groups to dine together and liquor-service hours to return to pre-pandemic limits.

Their hope is that customer counts and revenue will also return to pre-pandemic norms.

Opinion surveys, however, show many workers want to keep working from home, prompting uncertainty around whether downtown Vancouver restaurants will be able to rebound as fast as their suburban counterparts.

Glowbal Group owner Emad Yacoub, however, foresees downtown workers returning to offices because, he said, once CEOs and top-level managers start working at the office, their underlings will want to follow.

That trend would help Yacoub’s Glowbal restaurant at 590 West Georgia Street, as well as his Italian Kitchen restaurant at 860 Burrard Street, his Black+Blue bistro at 1032 Alberni Street and his Coast restaurant at 1054 Alberni Street.

“Human nature says that people who work in these types of environments want to be as close as possible to their supervisors or bosses,” Yacoub said.

He also expects that the prestige of having business lunches at downtown restaurants will be a determining factor in people making those bookings.

While customers could book business lunches at his Trattoria restaurants near Metropolis at Metrotown in Burnaby and at Park Royal in West Vancouver, Yacoub expects that those restaurants will continue to disproportionately cater to local families and friends getting together.

“Doing business lunches at a signature restaurant downtown is a lot different than doing lunches at a place in Burnaby,” he said.

Food blogger and consultant Richard Wolak agreed with Yacoub, and said that going to a restaurant downtown for lunch may bring serendipitous opportunities to network.

Restaurants in the suburbs have upped their game, however, in recent years, he said.

“The thing out in the suburbs is that there are all of these restaurant chains,” he said. “All the chains are doing great business, and I guess you could call them finer dining, but there aren’t a whole lot of independent restaurants that are fine dining in the suburbs.”

Owners and executives at chain restaurants say business in the suburbs has far outperformed downtown locations in recent months.

“I don’t think downtown has held up for anybody,” Earls owner Stan Fuller told BIV.

“It’s very challenging. If you don’t have the [office workers] down there, then you’ve lost your lunch business.”

Fuller’s restaurant chain has multiple downtown Vancouver locations, as well as restaurants in West Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey and other suburbs.

“The suburbs were faster to come back because people are still working from home,” Fuller explained.

He expects what he called a “mixed bag” come fall, with some workers working from home either full time or part time and others eager to return to downtown offices.

In the meantime, Fuller said the biggest driver of business for his locations has been new patios. The City of Vancouver allowed him to build a new patio at his restaurant at the corner of Fir Street and West Broadway, while the District of West Vancouver approved a new patio at the Earls restaurant across from Ambleside Beach.

Other restaurant owners who have locations in downtown Vancouver as well as in the suburbs say they have seen many diners want to dine inside – particularly during the recent heat wave.

The Old Spaghetti Factory senior vice-president Chris Kanuka said his chain expanded its patios at locations in Richmond, and in Langley, while it added two curbside patios at its Gastown location.

People had been flocking to the patios, he said, but there is now a mix, with some customers asking for indoor tables because they view that as a sign of normalcy.

The Old Spaghetti Factory has courted business customers through the years, but much of its business remains young families and friends who want to get together for a casual meal.

In Gastown, tourists represent a large part of the Old Spaghetti Factory’s business, and that location’s customer counts have dropped largely because international tourists remain unable to visit Canada, and the U.S. border is closed to leisure travel.

“What we don’t have in Gastown is the tourism component,” Kanuka said, “but in terms of locals wanting to dine out, I would say Gastown is consistent with suburban markets.” •