Written by: Scott Mercs, ITO Indigenous Business Advisor

On an ancient Kwakwaka’wakw village site, on the northwest tip of Vancouver Island, is situated a beautiful oceanside resort featuring 150 oceanfront campsites, 12 lovely cottages and a full-service restaurant. The cottages and campground are popular with guests due to its magnificent location, with passing Alaskan cruise ships, orcas, dolphins and a popular pink salmon run. The accommodation side of the business has always generated a good income for the First Nation that calls the site home, employing about 15 community members and generating a modest profit. Unfortunately, the restaurant was losing a fortune due to gigantic portion sizes and inexperienced outside management, and didn’t employ many band members. Although it was popular throughout the North Island for its’ amazing Prime Rib Special (16oz. of rib for $14.95!) and low breakfast prices and huge portion sizes, it was hemorrhaging money.

A new manager was hired and immediately conducted an audit of income and expenses for the previous season. The restaurant had losses in the tens of thousands, and nobody even knew it was in trouble. The restaurant was always busy, and the reputation was great. In hindsight, the “great” restaurant was subsidized by the First Nation’s finances, with a food cost percentage of 60%, a wage cost percentage of 50%, and staff taking home excellent wages and huge tips while the business floundered. The restaurant finances were included in the general resort ledger of accounts, and for some reason no effort was made to separate reporting into three accounts; accommodation, cottages and restaurant. A quick look at wages of the specific restaurant staff, contrasted against the line item “restaurant sales”, would have indicated a serious financial problem, but resort management didn’t take the time to do this. Accounting at the band office level was not able to make this observation due to the overwhelming amount of paperwork they faced on an ongoing basis.

Chief and Council wanted a financially viable restaurant, and one that 1) employed more band members, and 2) celebrated traditional food ways. A Prime Rib restaurant located on the First Nation’s ancestral village site seemed somehow inappropriate, and many community members wanted a different restaurant concept. The resort manager and first cooks, with the support of Chief and Council, decided to launch a “feast” dining concept for dinner service, and an over-the-counter taco and burger concept for lunch service. Guests would serve themselves from a buffet table located in the dining room, and staff would pour drinks and serve them at the bar located beside the buffet table. Finding skilled servers and kitchen staff to operate a remote restaurant always posed a challenge to the resort, even though the cooking and hosting traditions within the community were strong and deep. The new serving style would reduce the dependence on out-of-community staff, and reduce the high cost of labor a full-service restaurant concept demands on financial assets. Community cooks could now concentrate on creating “scratch” traditional foods prepared without the factory-like interruption of a-la-carte restaurant service.

The restaurant was open full-time from May until October, and a feast theme was created for each night of the week. Community Elders were contacted and asked to come and teach the cooks how to prepare smoked salmon and other traditional dishes, and capacity climbed dramatically, with many community youth and adults suddenly interested in working for the restaurant. When the season began, 85% of the staff were community members, up from 40% the year before. Contacts were made with many food suppliers, fishermen and farmers working and living in the region, and the Vancouver Island Traditional Foods Conference decided to hold its annual gathering on the resort grounds. The restaurant was remodeled, traditional motifs and artwork were featured on the building walls, and traditional songs were played softly over the restaurant sound system.

The restaurant lost its core customer base – resource industry workers from communities nearby looking for a classic Prime Rib dining experience. Over time new clientele replaced the old, and the cottage rental market really appreciated the shift in restaurant branding. Campground guests were never a large part of the restaurant clientele to begin with, but they appreciated the ability to come in and order a taco or burger to go, and enjoyed the new ambience that celebrated the culture of the First Nation that owned the resort. The restaurant revenue covered it’s operating costs, avoiding the financial disaster of recent years past, and provided community members much satisfaction and pride in the way it observed and celebrated local traditions and food ways.

Learn more about Scott, https://indegenoustourismontario.ca/marketing/indigenous-business-advisor-program/

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