How B.C.’s government and hospitality industry embraced the new reality—and each other’s interests
…You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a -changin’ —Bob Dylan.
If Covid-19 has yielded one major positive, it’s the way in which government and the hospitality industry now interact.
It’s improved. Considerably.
Liquor laws have long been a flashpoint between the industry and B.C.’s traditionally overbearing alcohol and cannabis regulating bureaucracy. As one insider wryly observes, historically, when it comes to the pace of B.C. liquor reform there were two speeds: “glacial and backwards.”
Though—to be fair—regardless of which party held power in Victoria, over the last decade the pace of change had already begun to pick up—with several initiatives under way. But come the pandemic, a year ago everything shifted into high gear.
What changed, according to ABLE BC executive director Jeff Guignard, is how government and industry quickly came to see each other as interdependent partners rather than adversaries.
The first sign that things were changing was the move to allow the sale of liquor with takeout orders. Compared to the norm, this was achieved in record time, a matter of a couple of weeks. How come? With in-house dining cancelled, the resulting massive loss in revenues was readily apparent to all the stakeholders, but no one more than government.
Since then have come other relaxations which seemed impossible to achieve pre-pandemic.
“Government is trying very hard to be as permissive as possible,” says Guignard, “and let people do what they need to do—but still staying within the framework of the law.” Making changes takes time, he says, but what doesn’t help is when people flagrantly violate the law.
The sale of takeout liquor is tied directly to food. Hence, says Guignard, “Your ability to run a de facto liquor store out of your restaurant is not going to happen. The government has no plans to create 14,000 new liquor stores!”
However, he also confirms that behind the scenes, things have been moving on other fronts. Some of the proposed changes include: legalizing takeout pre-mixed cocktails; working towards allowing wineries to ship to customers from a secondary location; and exploring the possibilities for a hospitality business to purchase from a liquor licensee of their choice.
BCRFA president Ian Tostenson agrees that the pandemic “was the genesis of a new way to do business with the provincial government. It started with an industry consensus on how we should reopen after the closure in 2020, and how we should provide the highest standard of safety.”
Tostenson says the association and other interested parties outlined specifically what was needed to operate under the newly imposed limited capacity, such as: expanded and creative patios, wholesale liquor pricing, liquor off-sales, reduced third-party delivery fees and grants.
“Industry consensus was the power, but when government actually understood the economic impact and importance of our $15-billion-dollar industry, the prospects of a potential collapse were unthinkable and government acted,” he explains.
Hence the change in mood.
“Through this, government and industry now speak and meet differently. It’s about finding creative impacting programs and the elimination of unnecessary red tape and regulation—and doing that in an expedited manner,” he says.
“It’s been an interesting period,” says Guignard. “We’re going to look back on this as a moment of change in our industry, and I think we’ve got more good things to come.”
—by Tim Pawsey