Last summer was meant to be filled with festivals for Rick Matharu and his food truck, itself a recent expansion of a fusion diner experience born from a reality cooking show victory.
Instead, within a week of the declaration of an emergency lockdown in March, the calls and e-mails cancelling or postponing events came flooding in, while all the fixed costs of running a bustling (but now shuttered) restaurant just west of Toronto Pearson Airport piled up.
“We’ve got no money coming in, we’ve got to pay our suppliers, our rent and whatever else there may be, and it was frightening,” said Matharu, chef and owner of Rick’s Good Eats, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dropped in for a photo op in 2018.
Matharu’s ability to weather the COVID-19 storm is an exceptional one, involving a recipe that won a 2012 reality TV show and put his butter chicken lasagne in grocery store freezers across the country.
Half of Canada’s restaurants risk closing within six months, according to survey results published by Restaurants Canada in December, while more than a third of all Ontario businesses won’t survive the provincial government’s Boxing Day expansion of restrictions, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Matharu didn’t collect royalties from the President’s Choice Butter Chicken Lasagne he spawned, but he did collect $250,000 in prize money and a loyal following of customers who know him as the winner of the second season of the Food Network’s Recipe to Riches show.
So when the business he started after his win was ordered to serve takeout only, he secured an interest-free loan from Ottawa to invest in vacuum-sealing equipment and started selling fresh and frozen versions of his lasagna, naan pizza, mac and cheese, butter chicken sauce and other menu items for pick up.
“It was a nice return that brought in a lot of business, so for me, that was a win,” he said.
Sales fell 60 per cent when the pandemic first hit, and remain 30 per cent less than a year ago now, plus all that lost catering revenue from the summer, he said.
Matharu, who describes his style as Punjabi-Canadian comfort food, also started posting Instagram cooking videos showing people how to cook tandoori chicken and various other recipes.
Rick’s Good Eats in Mississauga used to employ 22 people before the pandemic, but that’s down to nine now. #COVID #ontario #foodservices #pandemic
“The only thing I have left to do is pivot, think of new ideas, and accelerate my business, or at least pay my bills to make sure that we're surviving,” he said.
Matharu was also able to invest personal funds into web development for online orders for the curbside service, and is thinking about adding delivery across the city.
Complaints, I’ve had a few
It’s not that Matharu hasn’t been hit by some of the same economic realities facing many small businesses, especially those in hospitality.
Rick’s Good Eats employed 22 people before the pandemic, and that’s now down to nine. But after initially needing the maximum wage subsidy on offer, sales in the summer recovered enough that he is only eligible for 30 or 40 per cent (he expects it may dip again once accounting for October onward).
He also took two big losses over the summer, when the provincial government gave short notice for changes to limits on social gatherings, including one Thursday announcement of changed protocol when his food truck was lined up to attend seven events that weekend.
“You can’t change it on us last minute. We have all this food prepped up, we have all this food bought, we have staffing ready to go,” he said. “What do you want me to do with 50 kilograms of chicken?”
Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer