Portage Avenue restaurant closes amid myriad challenges

Residents of St. James are now having to venture outside their neighborhood to find a Vietnamese menu, after Yen Kitchen – the latest restaurant to announce it can no longer afford to operate amid the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 – closed its doors this weekend.

The co-owners of the restaurant at 1887 Portage Avenue told the Free press they are filing for bankruptcy after a series of unfortunate events since opening in 2020.

Entrepreneur Kim Vu said his business survived the initial shutdowns ordered by public health and the expense of implementing safety protocols.

But then came staffing issues, ingredient shortages and soaring inflation. Limited walk-in activity, which owners attribute to home courier, remained a problem despite the relaxation of virtually all winter restrictions. At the same time, delivery services take a large share of takeout profits.

Combined, all of these elements allowed Yen Kitchen to serve its final banh mi on July 1, Vu said.

“You have to choose between removing the ingredient in a dish or raising the price to maintain quality. Instead, we run away,” she said.

“We just prefer to close, just to keep the good reputation.”

The leaders of the St. James joint had obtained several grants and loans over the past 28 months. The company is among many companies struggling to stay afloat in a new pandemic phase with little virus-related support available.

“We are going to continue to see restaurants like this close unfortunately because you can only survive so long by surviving,” said Shaun Jeffrey, general manager of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association.

Restaurants are sitting on mountains of debt and consumer confidence is weaker than many had expected at this point, Jeffrey said. Many businesses have recently adjusted their closing times for lunch service to stay afloat, but this is only a short-term solution, he said.

The association is pushing for recovery supporters and provincial leaders to encourage Manitobans to support local facilities now that restrictions have eased.

Little Goat Food & Drink – another restaurant on Portage Avenue – closed earlier this year, citing similar reasons.

Vu and his longtime friend Chef Yen Phan (after whom their restaurant was named) purchased the former Le’s Subs store amid much uncertainty in April 2020.

Phan said they wanted to sell healthy, affordable food and create a vegan menu to fill a gap in the local takeout market, while continuing the site’s tradition of serving Vietnamese cuisine.

Shortly after moving from Vietnam to Canada in 2015, she studied Culinary Arts at Red River College Polytechnic. Vu, who had met Phan 13 years earlier in their home country, arrived in Winnipeg just before COVID-19.

Vu said she was homesick for authentic food and her Vietnamese friends, including Phan, shared her feeling that none of the restaurants they had been to in the city were quite up to par. Yen Kitchen has touted its reliance on traditional practices, including a 24-hour cooking time to make beef broth for pho and using spices shipped from Vietnam.

The cost of living and supply chain issues have made their dream of selling authentic food impossible, according to the owners. On March 30, the company launched a call for donations to extend its life.

“Chef Yen is picky. She wanted real spices. When shipping supplies were cut, (our suppliers) weren’t importing good quality beef spices,” Vu said, adding that international supermarkets had also stopped stocking their favorite rice noodles due to a spike. in shipping costs.

They haven’t found a substitute that absorbs flavorful broth without melting, she said, adding that ingredient prices have become unmanageable.

A box of vegan mayonnaise, which cost $20 at this time last year, has risen to $35, she said, noting that the 110% rise in canola oil prices is even more important.

While the owners of Yen Kitchen plan to pursue new ventures, the duo said they plan to do occasional pop-ups at festivals and friend-owned restaurants in the future.

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Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press educational journalist comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

Freeda S. Scott