Pandemic shines light on terroir: Terroir Symposium highlights
Colleen CrossFeatures Business and Operations Trends
The Terroir Virtual Symposium, held Sept. 13-15, provided a forum for restaurants, food service and foodies to look at the big picture of what terroir means in today’s food scene and also share stories of entrepreneurs who are innovating and making a difference.
The word “terroir” refers to the natural environment in which a food or wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography and climate, and the flavour given to it by the environment in which it is produced. Over the years, terroir has broadened to include education about different cultures, inclusiveness and interest in promoting partnerships among local food businesses.
The Symposium, in its 15th year, is hosted by the Culinary Tourism Alliance for more than 1,000 – chefs, producers, artisans, general managers, entrepreneurs, media and “storytellers” from more than 20 countries. It has the support of and features content from restaurants, wineries, breweries, retailers and tourism boards.
The new online format of the annual food industry event was evidence of the effect COVID-19 has had on food, hospitality and events. Organizers pulled off a polished, fast-moving buffet of an event, with something to interest and inform everyone. And the best part is that it was open to the world.
Below are just a few highlights of this year’s Terroir Symposium.
Trends in Current Food Landscape: Sylvain Charlebois
Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food, distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, makes his living studying the food supply chain. Charlebois headed up a list of stellar speakers on Monday’s program.
Charlebois recalled fielding many questions in the early days of the pandemic and his advice to people: “Don’t panic. Everything will be all right.”
He stands by those words of wisdom. For a while people were worried about food security. His lab at Dalhousie Universty in Halifax did a survey and found everyone was being affected by the pandemic – some more negatively than others. He wondered how best to support groups of COVID victims in vulnerable positions.
“There is an opportunity to connect with consumers and your creativity will pay off.” –Sylvain Charlebois, Dalhousie University, Halifax
Although six months later we know more about the virus, there is still a lot of uncertainty out there. “We will see suffering but there will be opportunity,” Charlebois said. For example, rural restaurants with unique menus may be given more attention and reach a more level playing field with restaurants in cities.
“Customers know more and they want to know more than ever, and terroir is that idea of a community knowing about food!” he said. “People are now more aware of what food can do for you.”
Charlebois suggested the lines between grocery and restaurants – and within the food supply chain – have blurred. As an example, one major grocery chain in Toronto is serving as a broker for restaurants by selling their meal kits to the public. “There is no line anymore: it’s just food,” he said.
In some ways, the idea of terroir has been flipped on its head by the pandemic, which has drawn attention to the environment. With pickup and delivery growing, plastics became a means of food safety, but one that is not sustainable. “It will become a much bigger issue for restaurants,” he said. And there is no going back: “People are growing accustomed to service and the service is getting better.” In reaction, he suggested, innovation such as “isothermic technologies” will need to happen, though price is an obstacle at the moment.
His words were encouraging: “We all struggle to find balance but we’ll figure it out. And that’s where food service will come in.”
In this new environment, we can all set our own rules, he said. “There is an opportunity to connect with consumers and your creativity will pay off.”
Collaboration in Culinary Tourism: Erinn D. Tucker
Erinn Tucker had a slightly different but still positive take on the pandemic. “COVID didn’t create the problem; COVID lifted the lid on what’s going on in the restaurant industry.”
Tucker is the director of the Global Hospitality Leadership master’s program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and co-founder of DMV (D.C.-Maryland-Virginia) Black Restaurant Week.
When COVID-19 hit, she recalls, some people asked, “Where are all the Black chefs?” She found statistics saying Black restaurant owners represent about eight per cent of the industry. As a Black businessperson and scholar who has worked in the restaurant industry in many roles and with many Black entrepreneurs, she questioned whether that number was accurate and set out to understand why it might be so low.
In 2020, Black Restaurant Week actually “sped up,” Tucker said. The pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement prompted Tucker and her team to make the awareness week more inclusive by collaborating not just with traditional dining participants but also catering, bars, take-out, delivery and other forms of food service to join the traditional dining participants. They added an “Allied” category for businesses that practise diversity and in other ways support Black-owned businesses. And they encouraged food businesses to reach out to different neighbourhoods.
According to Tucker, three conversations were happening that week:
- Consumers with a conscience.
- What constitutes a “Black-owned” restaurant?
- “Black” is not limited: it’s inclusive.
Tucker shared a few tips learned from the experience that she hoped would help others have a successful event and promote their businesses successfully:
- Monitoring social media and email helps get the message out.
- Storytelling is so important to your mission.
- Inclusion includes stakeholders and allies – as long as those allies ask themselves what their intention is.
Sheena Russell, founder and CEO of snack company Made With Local in Halifax, described how partnerships with local businesses helped her business grow at a manageable pace, allowing her to help support other local businesses and her community by providing a socially diverse employment model with programs for people who need a workplace that is extra empathetic and supportive, such as full-time caretakers or differently abled people. The resulting low turnover has helped her business remain stable.
Zoya De Frias Lakhany, owner of Le Virunga restaurant in Montreal, talked about wanting to introduce Pan-African, or Sub-Saharan, African cuisine by being creative with characteristic ingredients such as plantains and goat’s milk. She has partnerships with other restaurants and a strong, flexible relationship with small local suppliers who, she says, are sometimes concerned about being able to deliver a steady supply of their produce. “I tell them, just give us what you have,” she said.
Russell and de Frias Lakhany were just two of many interesting entrepreneurs to share their outlook and experiences. For information about the Terroir Symposium, visit http://www.terroirsymposium.com.
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