Restaurateurs grapple with rising food costs, menu prices expected to rise

Menu prices expected to rise

Restaurants across the country have been grappling with rising food prices since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for Blair Lebsack, some of the most shocking increases have been for his restaurant’s less flashy ingredients.

Before the pandemic, a 16-litre container of canola oil for his Edmonton restaurant RGE RD would cost $18, he said. Now they go for anywhere between $29 to $32 for the same amount.

"It adds up really quickly," Lebsack said in an interview.

High shipping rates, delays and increases in grain costs have sent food prices soaring for restaurants already hurt by pandemic restrictions and closures.

Restaurants Canada's James Rilett said restaurants are a low margin industry, so there's not a lot of room to work in additional costs.

"It’s pretty bad. We won't have an idea of how bad until most provinces get reopened," Rilett said.

A survey by Restaurants Canada found food costs are one of the top three challenges restaurants are facing along with additional shutdowns and pandemic-related debt.

Rilett, Central Canada vice-president at Restaurants Canada, said while most restaurant owners will try to delay menu increases for as long as possible, he expects customers will face higher prices.

The pandemic's effects on food prices have been far-reaching, impacting the entire supply chain, according to Canada’s Food Price Report.

“I think last year when the pandemic hit, the food industry was somewhat protecting the consumer. Prices did go up last year but (the industry) did absorb some of the shock created by the pandemic,” said Sylvain Charlebois, lead author of the report and director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.

However, the food price report predicts there'll be a five per cent increase in prices this year, up from a three per cent increase in 2020, he added.

“Some people may say 'Well, it's five per cent, what's the big deal?'” he said. “But five per cent is quite significant because food inflation is not a game of averages.”

According to monthly average retail price data from Statistics Canada, between January 2020 to May 2021, the average price of a kilogram prime rib roast went up almost 12 per cent. The price of 200 grams of instant coffee rose nearly 15 per cent.

Charlebois also noted that shipping costs have had a significant impact on Canada’s food prices and have tripled in the last year. And like Rilett, he expects restaurants will raise their prices to make up for the increased costs and may even make cuts to their menus to reduce the amount spent on food.

Menu changes have been Lebsack's approach so far.

RGE RD has been open for indoor dining for just over a week and while his regulars have noticed the higher costs, he said they've also been understanding.

"We have really good dialogue with our customers," Lebsack said.

Lee Cooper, chef and owner of L’Abattoir in Vancouver, said he’s also feeling the squeeze of increased costs.

The upscale eatery, however has a clientele that is used to spending a bit more on their dining experiences, Cooper added, which has helped the transition to changes in the menu.

“Our restaurant is not super cheap and we try our best to offer a premium product so I think our guests come in ready to spend a little bit more,” Cooper said.

One way for restaurants to lessen the blow of higher costs has been to get supplies from local sources.

Lebsack said he has about two years worth of animals being bred for RGE RD by local farms which are helping the restaurant avoid industrial farming prices.

"The closer we can work with our food and our neighbours, our community, the tighter we can keep our costs." Lebsack said.

And the saving grace for the country's restaurants may be the pent-up demand as diners head out for the first time after months of cooking at home and takeout meals.

Lebsack said he's already seeing his customers excited to get back to the brick-and-mortar dining experience.

"The only really good thing coming out of this is how much people have missed restaurants," Lebsack said.

"I think once people digest that everything has gone up in price, I think they'll be coming back out again and making it worthwhile for us to be in business."

CBC sets new diversity requirements for independently produced programs

CBC sets diversity quotas

CBC says it will only commission new programs in which nearly a third of the key creative team is made up of members of under-represented communities.

The public broadcaster says the diversity initiative announced Friday immediately applies to all independently produced scripted and unscripted series on television and streaming.

The same rules apply to in-house productions, but the vast majority of CBC's scripted and unscripted series are produced externally by independent producers.

CBC says at least 30 per cent of key creative roles on independent productions must be filled by individuals who are Black, Indigenous, people of colour or people with disabilities.

It says the criteria for what constitutes a key creative role will vary depending on the genre, but examples include writers, directors and principal performers.

The broadcaster says the commitment will be part of all CBC contracts with independent producers. It says current CBC series will also be required to lay out "action plans" about increasing representation on existing productions.

It adds that the effort builds on a 2019 commitment to "ensure that at least one of the key creatives in all scripted and factual commissioned programs will be held by a person from a diverse background" by 2025.

The majority of CBC's 2021-2022 programming slate meets that first goal, says the broadcaster, and some series exceed the new 30 per cent target.

Brookfield Infrastructure revises Inter Pipeline bid to include all-cash option

Pipeline bid revised

Brookfield Infrastructure Partners LP has revised its hostile takeover offer for Inter Pipeline Ltd. to give shareholders the option to receive their entire payment in cash, instead of a mix of cash and shares, if they desire.

The company also says it is prepared to increase its bid if it is successful in challenging a $350-million break fee Inter Pipeline must pay if it calls off its friendly all-stock deal to be bought by Pembina Pipeline Corp.

Brookfield Infrastructure says it eliminating a $5.56-billion cap on the amount of cash available under its proposal after what it says was feedback from institutional and event-driven investors.

Inter Pipeline's deal with Pembina would see shareholders receive half a Pembina share for each Inter Pipeline share they hold.

Brookfield Infrastructure has offered $19.50 in cash or 0.225 of a Brookfield Infrastructure class-A exchangeable share for each Inter Pipeline share.

It says it is prepared to increase the cash offering by up to 90 cents per share if it is successful in its challenge to reduce or eliminate the Pembina break fee.


S&P/TSX composite posts triple-digit decline in early trading, U.S. markets fall

Triple-digit market decline

Losses in the energy sector in early trading led a triple-digit decline for Canada's main stock index on Friday, while U.S. stock markets also fell.

The S&P/TSX composite index was down 112.44 points at 20,031.60.

In New York, the Dow Jones industrial average was down 373.48 points at 33,449.97. The S&P 500 index was down 35.91 points at 4,185.95, while the Nasdaq composite was down 73.91 points at 14,087.44.

The Canadian dollar traded for 80.71 cents US compared with 81.03 cents US on Thursday.

The August crude oil contract was down 24 cents at US$70.54 per barrel and the July natural gas contract was down six cents at US$3.20 per mmBTU.

The August gold contract was up 90 cents at US$1,775.70 an ounce and the July copper contract was up less than a penny at US$4.18 a pound.

Pornhub parent company MindGeek faces U.S. lawsuit over exploitation allegations

Pornhub faces U.S. lawsuit

An international law firm has launched a lawsuit in the U.S. against Canadian company MindGeek over alleged sexual exploitation videos on one of its websites, Pornhub.

Brown Rudnick LLP says the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, is on behalf of 30 victims of child porn, rape and human trafficking who the suit claims were exploited on Pornhub's site.

The firm is seeking damages for the effect of the exploitation against the alleged victims and says it has zero tolerance for illegal content.

None of Brown Rudnick LLP's claims have been proven in court.

In a statement, Pornhub said it is reviewing the lawsuit

It said it takes all complaints around its website seriously, including Brown Rudnick LLP's suit.

Pornhub added it has stringent measures now in place, including the banning of uploads from unverified users.

MindGeek, which is based in Montreal, is already under investigation by a Canadian federal privacy watchdog.

Privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien said his office is looking into the company following testimony from women who say Pornhub brushed off their pleas to have videos taken down.

DavidsTea creditors, employees, to split $18M after U.S. court ruling

Creditors to split $18M

DavidsTea Inc. creditors, including former employees, will split $18 million after the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware recognized a Quebec court decision approving its plan of arrangement.

The Montreal-based company will provide PricewaterhouseCoopers, the court-appointed monitor, with the funds that will be distributed to creditors in Canada and the United States.

The plan of arrangement was approved by creditors of DavidsTea and its U.S. subsidiary on June 11 and calls for the distribution of the funds in mid-July as a full and final settlement of all claims against the company.

DavidsTea faced $118.2 million of claims from more than 1,500 creditors, with 60 per cent originating in Canada. The claims include $3.9 million from Canadian employees, according a report PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The retailer filed for protection in July 2020 under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act in Canada and Chapter 15 of the United States Bankruptcy Code.

It subsequently exited its entire retail network except 18 Canadian stores while also supplying more than 2,500 grocery stores and pharmacies.

$80-million lawsuit launched over North Vancouver grain silo collapse

Lawsuit over silo collapse

North Vancouver’s Fibreco Export Inc. is suing the firm that designed and built its new McKeen Avenue grain terminal, alleging shoddy engineering caused one of the silos to collapse last year.

The suit filed in Vancouver Supreme Court on June 4, which names AG Growth International, its subsidiaries Westeel and Union Iron and engineer Donald W. Deal, says the export terminal could face $80 million in losses.

In December 2017, the company signed an agreement with AGT Food and Ingredients Inc. to shift operations to from wood pellet exports to agricultural products, which required them to build new silos, towers, conveyors, and other infrastructure, according to the statement of claim. In March 2019, they signed an agreement with Ag Growth International to design and build the new export facility.

The contract included a guarantee against defective workmanship, design and materials, which AGI and its subsidiaries would have to correct at their own expense, the claim states..

Even before the silo collapsed, Fibro staff began raising concerns about the stability of the associated towers, according to the suit. Fibreco alerted AGI that the structural steel appeared light or possibly under designed.

“It was noted that when standing at the top of the first towers built, there was several inches of sway as people were climbing the stairs,” the claim states. “In response, the AGI defendants represented to Fibreco that the towers and related components were designed to code and that the design was suitable.”

In August 2019, Fibreco hired an outside engineering firm to assess the site, which concluded the towers and catwalks were under designed. Those results were shared with AGI but, still, the company insisted the design was suitable, the civil claim asserts.

During construction in September that year, a welded connection in a catwalk failed, which resulted in work being halted for an investigation.

As a result, AGI took responsibility and committed to do the necessary remediation work, the court documents state.

“As part of AGI’s investigation into the cause of the tower related defects, AGI concluded that Deal had been negligent in the structural engineering and design work he performed on behalf of AGI, Westeel and Union Iron for the agriproducts facility, whereby Deal made a number of critical oversights, errors and omissions in his work, which necessitated numerous structural upgrades to the towers and related components to make them safe and complaint with all the drawings, specifications and applicable codes and standards,” the claim states.

Much of the substance of the lawsuit cites a formal complaint AGI filed about Deal with the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of B.C. in January 2021.

In that complaint, they said their investigation found Deal designed the towers to standards specifically related to radio towers, which are not applicable to towers at a grain facility. Deal did not adequately understand the software he was working on and the final shop drawings were not reflective Deal’s actual design work, Fibreco cites in the court documents. AGI also stated they found no evidence that Deal ever manually checked any of his computer calculations, “as sound practice would require,” the civil claim states.

“The foregoing was believed by AGI to be an egregious miscarriage of engineering because, had the tower weld connection not broken, it is unlikely that the issue would have been brought to the fore until a much larger and potentially catastrophic incident occurred,” the claim states.

AGI later terminated Deal and he resigned his registration to practice in B.C., according to the suit.

On Sept. 11, 2020, while the siloes were being commissioned, the first one to be fully loaded with grain immediately failed and collapsed, the claim states.

Staff vaccine discussions, disclosures pose challenges for businesses

Staff vaccine dilemma

Cynthia Fernandez said her personal sense of responsibility for the safety of her clients led her to publicly disclose that her staff were vaccinated against COVID-19 earlier this spring.

"I think a lot of people are nervous still about coronavirus," the owner of Cambridge, Ont.-based Accurate Auto Appraisal said in an interview. "We want to reassure people and let them know that we take this seriously and we want to ... give them that reassurance and peace of mind."

The return to business after 15 months of public health measures, lockdowns and lost revenues due to the COVID-19 pandemic is presenting a new problem for some entrepreneurs: how to address the issue of vaccines with employees, and how to respond when customers ask if their staff are vaccinated.

Fernandez is one of a number of small businesses across Canada that has disclosed the vaccination status of its employees, but the strategy hasn't been widely adopted.

According to Mark Agnew, vice president of policy at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, businesses are largely in the dark when it comes to the legal implications of discussing vaccination status.

“In terms of the rules — or the absence thereof — from on high, there has been no clear communication to companies about vaccination status either in the workplace or (in) a consumer-facing environment,” he said in an interview.

“It's a really messy landscape out there and companies just want some certainty."

Two main legal questions define the current conversation on obtaining vaccine information from staff, Agnew said. One is the duty of care employers are under to provide a safe workplace for their employees. The other concerns privacy issues in protecting the personal information of employees.

According to Mississauga, Ont.-based personal injury lawyer Nainesh Kotak, customers are within their rights to ask if a business's staff are vaccinated.

"I think it is certainly consumer choice and ... particularly relevant in high contact health-care environments such as chiropractic clinics, medical offices, dental offices, massage therapists, even I would suggest insofar as a hair salon," Kotak said.

However, employers aren’t imbued with the power to enforce “mandatory vaccinations,” said labour lawyerKyle MacIsaac.

“No one employer anywhere would have the ability to compel an employee to undergo what is essentially a medical treatment,” said MacIsaac, a partner at Mathews, Dinsdale and Clark in Halifax. “What they do have the ability to do, obviously, is if an employee refuses to obtain a vaccine to then take certain remedial actions."

Companies must balance those two obligations in crafting policies around vaccination, and there's little consensus on the best way forward.

The Canadian Press reached out to more than 50 customer-facing businesses in four provinces, including salons, daycares and dentist offices, the majority of whom did not respond to a request for comment about their plans for staff.

Agnew said the Chamber of Commerce is increasingly fielding questions from members about whether to ask employees about their vaccinations status. It typically encourages companies to check with local health officials.

Some businesses are taking a cautious approach, he said, asking staff to volunteer their vaccination status, while others “do not want to touch it with a 10-foot pole because they think it's just a legal case waiting to blow up in their face.”

Mylisa Henderson, co-owner of Scandinave Spa's Blue Mountains, Ont., location, said in an email that conversations about vaccinations have come up, but staff do not have to disclose personal health information to clients unless they choose to do so.

Even hospitals are wary of the subject. Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, said in an emailed statement that since the Ontario government hasn't issued any directives on staff vaccination or the disclosure of that information, hospitals in the province are reviewing “self-reported employee vaccination levels" and are encouraging workers to get jabbed.

Naz Goraya, the owner and sole employee of Edmonton's Mayfield Mattress, said in an interview he's also taken to disclosing his vaccination status on the store's social media accounts to give his business "an edge."

When it comes to privacy, MacIsaac said in an interview that employers looking to gather medical information need to do so with consent from the employee and once collected, the information needs to be protected “with the utmost deference to security" to avoid violating any privacy obligations the employer has for their employees.

Getting expressed and informed consent from employees is key, especially if a business is looking to disclose that information to clients or patrons. That means thoroughly explaining why the information is being collected and documenting the consent of the employee.

Kotak said he expects to see some businesses implement their own vaccination policies.

"Whether they'll be upheld really depends on the type of business it is and if other protections could be in place that would make being vaccinated really not important," he added.

MacIsaac said that while the firm has been fielding more questions about navigating vaccinations in the workplace, he believes the issues will become less important as the pandemic begins to wind down.

“I don’t think we're going to get to the point where the status of vaccination becomes such fodder for public consumption,” MacIsaac said.

Agnew said he expects the issue to evolve as businesses open up, which is why the Chamber is stressing the need for more guidance on the topic.

'Slippery slope towards cartel-like conduct' in grocery wage-fixing

Grocery wage-fixing

A new report says Ottawa should amend Canada's competition laws to stop cartel-like practices and wage-fixing agreements in the country's grocery sector.

The report comes after Canada's big three grocers — Loblaw Companies Ltd., Metro Inc. and Sobeys parent company Empire Company Ltd. — all cut temporary pandemic-related pay bonuses within a day of each other last June.

The move prompted the House of Commons industry committee to hold hearings and invite senior grocery executives to explain their decisions.

The committee's report, presented in the House of Commons on Wednesday, says the food retailers admitted to communicating with each other about ending their respective wage premiums of about $2 an hour, but denied co-ordinating the termination of the pay bumps.

Yet Matthew Boswell, commissioner of competition at the Competition Bureau, testified that competitors communicating about wages at the executive level risks "a slippery slope towards cartel-like conduct."

But he told the committee that the bureau lacks the power under the Competition Act to prosecute such behaviour and faced significant resource constraints.

Loblaw expands PC Optimum at Esso stations, points redeemable on gas, car washes

Loblaw expands PC points

Canada's biggest food and drugstore retailer is expanding its loyalty program at Esso gas stations, allowing PC Optimum members to both earn and redeem points when they fuel up.

Loblaw Companies Ltd. says it first teamed up with Imperial Oil in 2018 to allow its loyalty rewards members to earn points when buying gas at Esso stations.

The company says starting early next year PC Optimum cardholders will also be able to redeem points for rewards including fuel and car washes.

Amy Newman, retail sales and marketing director for Imperial, says the program has been successful and that the expanded partnership will take the customer experience "to the next level."

Imperial says it will be retiring its Esso Extra program and that its members will be able to convert existing points to PC Optimum.

Uwe Stueckmann, Loblaw's chief consumer officer, says the company is excited to give Esso Extra members the chance to join the PC Optimum program, which has 18 million members.

Cheap rates, flexible cancellation policies won't last long, travel agencies say

Travel deals won't last long

As Canada slowly emerges from pandemic lockdown measures, bookings and inquiries at Kristin Hoogendoorn’s travel business have exploded.

The travel adviser said people are flocking to lock in a winter holiday in warmer climates like the Caribbean, and said Canadians may want to consider booking sooner rather than later so they don’t miss out.

Travel agents say the coming vacation seasons will be like no other in previous years, since hotels and airlines will still be getting back on their feet. With fewer airplanes in the sky and a limited number of hotels and resorts available, Hoogendoorn said people who wait to book could find that some options are sold out, while others jump in price.

“Now is absolutely the right time to book, we’re seeing the supply is not great because there’s no federal opening plan for travel, and the demand is really high,” said Hoogendoorn, who works for Centre Holidays and said prices are already starting to creep up from mid-pandemic lows.

“And there are certain tour operators… that have cancellation policies where you are able to get your money back if you cancel within a certain time frame, so it’s really low risk, and if it works out, then you got in early.”

Richard Vanderlubbe, president of tripcentral.ca, said those easygoing cancellation policies will not stick around for long, since companies won’t feel the need to offer them when travel stabilizes.

And both Vanderlubbe and Hoogendoorn say there’s reason to believe that prices will continue to go up for travel to resort destinations in the coming months, simply because of all the pent-up demand.

Vanderlubbe said it can be easy to cancel if you book an all-inclusive package that includes every part of your travel, but it’s important to read the fine print to ensure that the cancellation policy is flexible enough for your risk appetite.

For people who’d rather wait than book a trip that may get cancelled because of the pandemic, Vanderlubbe said there are certain destinations that may stay cheap for some time yet.

He pointed out that business travel for things like conferences and meetings will likely not resume to normal for a while, and that means flights and hotels for larger cities like New York or Chicago will still see a shortage of travellers compared to previous years.

“Usually it was, if you want to go to New York, you were paying sky high rates during the week, and the weekend was cheaper,” said Vanerlubbe, who said hotels will be looking to fill the lack of corporate travellers.

“It’s all going to flip I think as they market to leisure customers.”

He said the same could apply to large European cities like London.

“If you’re looking to travel to a destination where a lot of people flew for business… there could be a glut of airline seats.”

Regardless of where and when you decide to start travelling again, Hoogendoorn said people should consider using a travel adviser, even if they haven’t in the past.

She pointed out that there are a myriad of changing restrictions and protocols that people will have to pay attention to when booking, and an adviser can help decipher what all that means for your trip.

“Although the entry requirements here might change… you’re still going to have entry restrictions going into other countries, and people just don’t know what they are,” said Hoogendoorn.

“It’s very unclear when you look online, so it’s better to have a professional and somebody who understands those requirements so you’re not stuck at the border going, “well I guess I can’t go anywhere.”

Internet outages briefly disrupt access around the globe

Wave of internet outages

A wave of brief internet outages hit the websites and apps of dozens of financial institutions, airlines and other companies across the globe Thursday.

The Hong Kong Stock Exchange said in a post on Twitter Thursday afternoon Hong Kong time that its site was facing technical issues and that it was investigating. It said in another post 17 minutes later that its websites were back to normal.

Internet monitoring websites including ThousandEyes, Downdetector.com and fing.com showed dozens of disruptions, including to U.S.-based airlines.

Many of the outages were reported by people in Australia trying to do banking, book flights and access postal services.

Australia Post, the country's postal service, said on Twitter that an “external outage” had impacted a number of its services, and that while most services had come back online, they were continuing to monitor and investigate.

Many services were up and running after an hour or so but the affected companies said they were working overtime to prevent further problems.

Banking services were severely disrupted, with Westpac, the Commonwealth, ANZ and St George all down, along with the website of the Reserve Bank of Australia, the country's central bank. The Reserve Bank cancelled a bond-buying operation due to technical difficulties facing several banks that were to participate.

Services have mostly been restored.

Virgin Australia said flights were largely operating as scheduled after it restored access to its website and guest contact center.

“Virgin Australia was one of many organizations to experience an outage with the Akamai content delivery system today,” it said. “We are working with them to ensure that necessary measures are taken to prevent these outages from reoccurring.”

Akamai, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, counts some of the world’s biggest companies and banks as customers. The company said in a statement Thursday that it was aware of the issue and working to restore services as soon as possible.

The disruptions came just days after many of the world's top websites went offline briefly due to a problem with software at Fastly, another major web services company. The company blamed the problem on a software bug that was triggered when a customer changed a setting.

Brief internet service outages are not uncommon and are only rarely the result of hacking or other mischief. But the outages have underscored how vital a small number of behind-the-scenes companies have become to running the internet.

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