An Open Letter from 19 Okanagan Grill + Bar Owner/Operator Neil Martens
August 26, 2017
Dear Valued Guests,
It’s 3 am. I am awake and pondering the best way of responding to an upset guest who is “irate” about the price of BC wine at 19 Okanagan Grill + Bar. We offer a glass of local wine in the range of 8 to 10 dollars. Recently we are hearing that it’s too expensive for some customers. The answer lies somewhere between an important restaurant philosophy and a condition in today’s society that bothers me.
19 Okanagan is much like many other independent restaurants in the valley. We are driven to support local farmers, winemakers and businesses whose quality first mindset mirrors our own. We believe that spending money within our cities and towns, our regions, our province and neighbouring provinces is a very important part of keeping our “local” economy strong and healthy. We don’t have purchasing directors buying for a multi-unit restaurant company based out of Toronto. We don’t have volume purchasing power like those big box restaurants that are able to buy beef, chicken, wine, produce and more from anywhere and everywhere in the world at lower than Canadian market prices. I have lived in some of those restaurant environments, loved them for what I learned, met some amazingly great people and have fond memories. However, that is simply not the way I want my restaurant to operate, nor does my team of managers, chefs and servers.
We could buy pre-made soups, stocks and sauces and save a small fortune in labour costs. Instead, we choose to hire Red Seal chefs, develop apprentice chefs to aspire to one day be a chef. Rather than paying someone in another country to make soup, Scotty makes it, or Lyndon makes it or Sean makes it, using locally sourced ingredients.
It’s a culture shift. The very fabric of that shift is woven into our core beliefs and philosophy. It defines who we are! We support local farmers like Bellman Farms instead of buying produce from Mexico. We purchase from local meat purveyors like 63 Acres in Armstrong or buy Canadian AAA Alberta beef rather than beef from New Zealand. 19 Okanagan chooses to spend more money, intentionally. We could import chicken from Nicaragua and pork from Peru. The savings per year would be in the thousands of dollars. As a result, we could lower our prices and our standards. But, the glimmer in our eyes and the passion in our hearts would diminish rapidly.
We choose to stock quality local wines and they dominate our wine list. We take pride in knowing the people who grow our grapes, who care and tend to our cattle and those who grow our heirloom vegetables that are so delicious and so unique. All of these people have a story and we love their stories, because they are our friends and neighbours. We also embrace them because the challenges that they face are eerily similar to the challenges we face as an independent restaurant.
Let me say it again. We all compete against huge multinational corporations with the purchasing power allowing them to undercut prices. We all have teams of dedicated people who believe in local and who believe in the importance of local businesses to tourism in the Okanagan Valley, the province and Western Canada.
As I look around at the people I have come to know in Okanagan Valley companies and businesses, they aren’t driving fancy automobiles, living extravagantly or travelling extensively. They work long cruel hours sacrificing precious family time. They all have one thing in common. They take immense pride in what they do.
The challenges are many and complex. BC wineries face a shorter growing season and less sunlight than California, Chile or Australia. Our geography dramatically impacts yield and lower yield per acre means the cost per ounce of wine increases. Much the same can be said about the produce, fruit and meat we source locally. We also have many more layers of taxation than our global competitors. How else could New Zealand beef travel for many, many hours to get to Canada in refrigerated shipping containers, and then be so much cheaper than the beef we get from Armstrong, Cache Creek or Alberta.
So why do we as a restaurant buy the more expensive local wines, the pricier local spirits, the costlier local craft beers, the much more expensive local beef, produce and fruit? The answer is simple. We believe that giving our guests the best that the Okanagan and BC has to offer, will earn us the ultimate reward of customer loyalty and repeat business. And we believe in the futures of our neighbours and friends.
What bothers me the most is our societies alarming need to associate best with least expensive or quality with cheap. It’s confusing! People come from all over the world to sample and buy Okanagan Wines. Are they more expensive? Yes! BC wine is usually much more expensive than competing international wines. Would 19 Okanagan make more profit on a wine from Australia? Absolutely! Could we sell it for less and still make more money? Sadly, yes we could.
The alternative to spending your dining dollars with us or another independent restaurant with a local first philosophy is to take your business to a chain restaurant down the street. The wealthy CEO of a huge corporation in Toronto, Australia or Mexico won’t notice, but the winery owner in Naramata or the farmer in Oliver certainly will. If we’re not careful and loyal, one or more of those BC wineries, local independent restaurants and farmer/producers will go out of business. All over a couple of dollars saved on your bill.