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Foodservice Businesses Could Collapse as Alberta Shuts Mall Food Courts Amid Pandemic Restrictions

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Alberta shopping centres are asking the provincial government to review and revise current mandated public health restrictions which are hurting food court vendors in malls – threatening their very survival.

While vendors are open to sell food in those malls, customers are not allowed to sit and eat in the food court dining area.

In a letter to the provincial government, the Southern Alberta Shopping Centre Association and the Northern Alberta Shopping Centre Association, representing  more than 15 major enclosed shopping centres with more than 200 food and beverage retailers are contesting the mandated closure of food court seating within enclosed retail centres as outlined in the September 20 Alberta Provincial Restrictions.

The associations are asking that the closure of food court seating be reconsidered and shopping centres be permitted to work with their respective health Inspectors to apply either the one-third fire code capacity limits to the seating areas with appropriate distancing or be able to participate  in the Restriction Exemption Program which requires customers to provide proof of vaccinations.

“While Retail as a whole has been gravely affected by COVID-19 and the evolving restrictions implemented for the safety and wellbeing of the public, our Food and Beverage Tenants have been impacted on a substantially more drastic scale due to the numerous removals of their seating areas,” said the letter from the associations. “As you can appreciate customer behavior most often includes a dining experience, a food or beverage purchase as a part of their shopping trip. When there is no opportunity to “dine in” traffic & dwell time decreases and thereby sales decrease for not only food and beverage tenants but other retailers as well.

Image: Londonderry Mall

“As we near twenty months into this pandemic, many Food and Beverage Tenants have either closed or are barely surviving – even with the assistance of CECRA, CERS and Landlords. While many of the Food and Beverage operators (have) national banners, most are local franchisee/stakeholders who are operating the businesses and bearing the weight of these impacts. Tenants were just recently experiencing an increase in sales and this restriction will detrimentally deflate that opportunity.

“Lastly, with customers unable to eat in designated Food Court seating areas, that we all work so diligently to clean and maintain safely, they will seek alternate inappropriate locations such as other common area seating, back hallways or alcoves; all of which pose additional health and safety concerns. This also leads to very unpleasant interactions with shopping centre security personnel that are trying to follow government guidelines.”

Shannon Perschon
Shannon Perschon

Shannon Perschon, the president of the Southern Alberta Shopping Centre Association and Property Manager of CF Chinook Centre in Calgary, said Quebec, Manitoba, and Ontario have implemented a type of vaccine passport program in enclosed shopping centre food courts, and it has been running smoothly thus far.

“Because retail has been so greatly affected throughout the pandemic, the food vendors have been hit the hardest in the whole group. They’ve had numerous times when they’ve reopened just as various capacity restrictions closed during the pandemic. It’s just been devastating for the food court retailers,” said Perschon.

“And if you have been to a mall you probably understand that the experience of shopping centres part of it is always dining. Whether it’s a food court, a restaurant, a coffee shop, it’s just a natural expected part of the shopping trip. You don’t see food courts just being a take out experience.

“With these latest restrictions customers now are sitting on the floor, they’re sitting in back hallways, they’re sitting in staircases. It’s extremely difficult for the security teams and cleaning staff to manage this and it poses additional health and safety concerns all over the place.”

Some malls have also opened up patio areas to accommodate customers.

“These food court vendors are probably losing 60 to 80 per cent of their business with food restrictions being in place. Their business has drastically dropped,” said Perschon.

“We were just getting momentum this last few months to get to even a possible comparison over year to year. With the closures and capacities changing all the time, you can’t do a comparison even to 2019. It’s tough because of all the restrictions that have been in place.”

“Food courts have been grouped into the wrong spot. We’re usually grouped with restaurants. So with the same restrictions that are put on a restaurant are often put on to a food court which makes a lot of sense. So all these food courts want is an opportunity to participate in the Restriction Exemption Program which the landlords are willing to do. Landlords are willing to put out the money to operate them with local health inspectors being part of the equation but also to ensure that property safety and cleaning protocols are in place.”

Michael Kehoe

Michael Kehoe Broker/Owner at Fairfield Commercial Real Estate in Calgary and a spokesman for Consumer Real Estate Canada, said he was  surprised and disappointed when the Alberta government health restrictions effectively shut down the on-site dining at regional shopping centres and mixed-use complex food court venues.

“These facilities are an essential element of major shopping centres and mixed-use buildings and are an important amenity anchoring these high traffic venues. Food court and food hall operators have demonstrated in the recent past that these venues can be operated in a safe and effective manner with sanitizing procedures, customer pathway controls and the spacing of seating,” he said.

“I am not aware of any proven spread of COVID that has been linked to shopping centre food courts. The government mandated measures appear to me to be an overreach and unnecessary action at this time and should be lifted immediately. These socially important and popular gathering and dining places feature clusters of quick service independent and franchise style food operators that are often family-owned small businesses. At this human level actual people are negatively affected financially by these measures with little or no government and landlord support. I hope that the provincial officials will move quickly to rectify this situation with a view to protecting lives and livelihoods.”

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior National Business Journalist with Retail Insider in addition to working on his own as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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