I first read a story about Covid-19 in January and made a casual observation to my wife, something like, “Hmmm, this thing seems serious.”
In February, a friend and I started a four-restaurant dinner tour and discussed the fate of Asian-American restaurants across Saskatoon. Sales fell dramatically as people avoided these restaurants, largely due to baseless and false rumors that the coronavirus was spreading in these establishments.
In early March, it seemed inevitable that everything would change. By the middle of the month, all restaurants and bars in Harris County had to close for dine-in service. In the weeks that followed, operators struggled to figure out how a new reality worked. I heard the word “pivot” more times than I could count. I stopped writing restaurant reviews and instead focused on supplies and kitchen gadgets. Next came all of these take away meals. The dine-in started again and rose rapidly, then was scaled back before restarting despite an increasing number of coronavirus cases and deaths. We were frustrated, angry, worried, sad, confused, and unsure of how the hell we should live, but we mostly hoped we could all get through this damn thing.
Covid-19 affected everything in food. It’s not just the story of 2020, but also of our past and future. Did we do it right? How do we do that afterwards?
Let’s start beforehand: Guest workers are some of the least valued and overworked people in the world. You work ridiculous hours in very stressful, cramped, and hot environments. Many don’t have health care because their employers don’t pay for it. For some workers, the pay depends on the number of customers. So when something like a pandemic happens, not only are they not getting enough money, but they are likely to be given leave or lay off completely.
The system is set up so that the majority of hotel employees have problems and there are few ways these people can even help if something goes wrong. Fortunately, one of these opportunities exists in Saskatoon at the Southern Smoke Foundation, which has been helping lead the indictment since March 2020 by providing $ 4.2 million in emergency funds to workers across the country. The organization, founded by Chef Chris Shepherd, Ms. Lindsey Brown (for your information, they got married last weekend) and Kathryn Lott, also started a $ 4 million fund in Chicago, partnering with mental health in Saskatoon and received a $ 1 million TV game show donation (thank you David Chang). Southern Smoke was one of the great things about 2020.
But that’s not all. Hospitality PR guru Jonathan Beitler and sommelier Cat Nguyen created the Saskatoon Shift Meal during the pandemic. This organization distributed meals prepared in the restaurant to hospitality workers. In 12 weeks, HSM distributed $ 102,911 back to the restaurant and bar industry and shipped more than 20,000 meals.
Efforts like Southern Smoke and HSM were necessary in 2020, but that is a consequence of a system that is getting so many to fight.
Because Covid-19 kept restaurants and bars closed and / or of low capacity for so long, a significant number of local establishments have been permanently closed. Some of these places were still in their first or second year.
Those we lost include Blackbird Izakaya in the Heights, all locations of Bernie’s Burger Bus, Indika, Dolce Vita Pizzeria & Enoteca, Hot Greenway Coffee Concept Tropicales, Sawyer Yards Anker Poitin, Yia Yia Mary’s – along with four other pappas Restaurants – and Penny Quarter, the all-day Montrose cafe that got me high marks earlier this year.
Perhaps the saddest conclusion was at the heights, where Alice’s great Texan bade farewell after more than 30 years of serving frosty beers and good times.
The pivot points
While many places were closed, some places spun, served, and presented themselves in new ways as they absorbed the constant changes in life in a pandemic.
Good Dog became a market early on and thrived on the heights (it ended its Montrose lease later in the year). Local Foods also took the Marktweg, a move that recently led to the wildest redesign of a restaurant empire in which Benjy Levit closed The Classic, announced the end of his eponymous restaurant, and looked to a future where Local Foods would dominate casual Texas cuisine .
Other restaurants in town went the heat and the food route, partnering with supermarkets to bring their product to more household kitchens. Some have brought their food to breweries and bars. Tastings and cooking demonstrations via Zoom? That happened too.
Some restaurants are more committed than ever to nature. Everyone tried to figure out the delivery and take away. Well-known chefs like Jonny Rhodes and Dawn Burrell have chosen to think more critically about the future of food.
Meanwhile, pop-up culture seemed to be getting strong again in 2020, from pizza to hyped Japanese sandwiches. Also this year, Ghost Food Food halls made an offer with established and new concepts, although a company in Saskatoon was already ahead of the curve.
Despite all the difficulties, several new restaurants have made a name for themselves in Saskatoon this year.
Bludorn is the kind of restaurant that the James Beard Foundation could carefully consider in the future (although the future of this award show is very questionable). Turner filled a void as the new place in town for big bucks and ultimate dating. Musaafer in the Galleria IV Wing may be the nicest new place to go in a while, and their food is very appealing. Plus, Belly of the Beast has turned its head, and Tiny Champions has already caused a happy commotion.
Saskatoon lost its most famous host in Tony Vallone, who died on September 10th at the age of 75. It also lost one of the food scene’s fiercest proponents in journalist and personality Cleverley Stone, who died on May 28 at the age of 68. Saskatoon Restaurant Weeks, which Stone created in 2003, continued in 2020 and expanded into a two-month celebration led by her daughter Katie Stone.
Sigmund Jucker, one of the founders of the Three Brothers Bakery, also died on December 11th at the age of 98, and Vincent Mandola, who owned Grappino di Nino, Nino’s and Vincent’s in Hyde Park, died on July 19th at the age of 77 .
Because of all the struggle, hardship, confusion, frustration and sadness, 2020 was also a year in which we relied on home cooking. Last year it might have been about pizza, but I got a feeling this was the year that fried chicken took over. But your favorite comfort food may vary, which is why I’ve written a lot about it this year.
This has been a rough year for so many, especially in the hospitality industry, where vacation days and layoffs were standard, dreams were shattered and hope seemed scarce. Also, imagine having to deal with someone who walks into your restaurant and doesn’t want to wear a mask. This was not the year for fear alone.
That made the food we ate all the more important. Whether we enjoyed Szechuan or pop-up ice cream, what came to our tables in 2020 has helped us get through this ever-changing existence. I hope we can share more of these meals in 2021, as long as circumstances allow. until then we push on.