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Photo courtesy of Chris McDonald.
December is upon us, and restaurants are starting to fill up with corporate holiday parties. For some restaurants, however, the winter will end up much more bitter, as the worsening economy will leave in its wake more than a few closures. What will separate the survivors from the failures? We ask noted chef Chris McDonald, formerly of Avalon and now co-owner of Cava, for his suggestions.

There are things that good restaurants should provide, economic slowdown or not, says McDonald: a quality product, good service, and customer engagement (“Remember if they eat fish, if they’re allergic to anything”). During tough times, restaurants must adapt to the needs of their customers: “They will still go out, but they might pull back in their spending,” notes McDonald.
Some restaurants may be tempted to cut costs by eliminating frills, but, in this climate, success “has to be more than just cutting back on the linens. It’s dropping the hard up-sell. Be welcoming if they want a glass of wine instead of a bottle, if they want tap water.” The key is to provide the same quality of experience, even if the customer spends less per visit. “You have to give them an opportunity to spend as much as they like without feeling awkward or uncomfortable. I’d rather see them [spending] less than not to see them at all.”
2008_12_2_Cava2.jpgMcDonald says Cava firmly follows this philosophy: “I don’t want customers to feel like they can’t come and have two appetizers and a cheese plate. It was how it was like even at [the more up-scale] Avalon.” He adds that Cava hasn’t felt the crunch yet, but he’s cautious of the winter months to come. “We’ll see how January to March goes: it’s dark and cold outside and [restaurants] can get very, very quiet.” McDonald believes a smaller restaurant like Cava will be advantageous in this recession, since it can be more flexible than a larger one like Avalon.
Cava is also lower-maintenance than McDonald’s former restaurant, giving him more free time to give back to the community by catering charity events. Recently, McDonald did a function for the community food centre, The Stop, and another at the Design Exchange to benefit street kids.
In addition to the Spanish-influenced dishes he brings from Cava, McDonald also features desserts from Xococava, the confectionary he and business partner Doug Penfold opened next to Cava, like churros, chocolates, and ice cream. “It’s rewarding to see the smiles when I bring the sweet stuff,” he laughs. “Let people know I’m happy to do more charity events.”
That’s one more thing restaurateurs must have to make it through this economy: passion for their work.
Photo by Jaime Woo.