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COVID-19: Vancouver restaurateur who fought to survive virus now fighting for healthier food

For 10 nights Vancouver restaurateur and chef Ernesto Gomez went to sleep not knowing if he would see another day. COVID-19 had his lungs in its fist and he could barely breathe.

“Every night I thought I was not going to wake up,” said Gomez. He was so weak and short of breath he could barely make it from his bed to the kitchen. He knew only this: if he survived, he wanted to awaken in a different world. A better world.

“I want less waste. I want to eat traceable, good products. I want to know who grows my food,” said Gomez, a partner in Chancho Tortilleria, a Mexican restaurant, and Nuba, a small chain of Lebanese restaurants.

Gomez survived COVID-19. So did his restaurants, but he and the businesses have been changed by the pandemic.

For Gomez, who grew up in northern Mexico, food has been the filter of his most intense and joyful experiences, the locus of his most pleasant memories, and the driver of his ambition.

He learned to cook from his abuelas — his grandmothers — who created intensely flavourful and nourishing meals from the meagre yields of the Monterrey deserts.

“There wasn’t much there, but what they created was incredible: wild game, tamales, flour tortillas. You know where everything came from.”

Gomez went to culinary school in France, later became enamoured with Japanese cuisine, and picked up a master’s degree in business at Cornell University. He came to Vancouver hoping to learn to snowboard, and stayed.

When he discovered a tiny 12-seat restaurant Lebanese restaurant called Nuba, he was so inspired by the concept he partnered with founder Victor Bouzide and helped expand the business into four locations.

He later opened Chancho Tortilleria on Davie St., a traditional taco restaurant that sources all of its masa and chilies from small producers in Mexico.

Gomez was doing a two-week guest chef stint in the U.K. in early March when the COVID-19 crisis hit. Gomez was slated to continue on to Madrid, where he was in talks to open a restaurant.

But almost overnight, the situation changed. The UK restaurant where Gomez was cooking received a report that a diner had fallen ill. He cancelled the trip to Spain and returned to Canada immediately. When he got back to Vancouver he self-quarantined.

The first day home he felt rundown, but he didn’t think it was COVID-19. He’d been working 16-hour days in the UK, and he’d just logged an international flight. Gomez had no reason to believe he’d been exposed to the virus since he’d had no contact with customers.

“I thought it was just the air conditioning on the plane,” he said.

“The second day (after I got home) the body pains started and it was severe, 10 times as intense as when you get a flu,” said Gomez. Then came the fever, cough, weakness and headaches. After three days the fever broke — that’s when he lost his sense of taste and smell and began to experience difficulty breathing.

That same week, his local restaurants began to shut down. Gomez could barely participate in decision-making done through virtual meetings.

“I couldn’t even talk, I had no breath,” said Gomez, 46. “I let go of the reins. I just had to take care of my health.”

Day 13 he woke up and felt air enter his lungs. His energy flooded back.

“There was damage to my lungs but that same day I called everyone and said we can’t stay closed.”

The livelihoods of 150 employees were at stake. They had to pivot to takeout and delivery.

But using third-party delivery platforms that took 30 per cent off the top was unsustainable.

“We decided to set up our own delivery service.”

Staff became delivery drivers. That meant fewer points of contact, and safer food handling. They created “micro territories” in the area of each of the restaurants for delivery.

But keeping the businesses afloat wasn’t enough. Gomez wanted to help the community. Not everyone could afford delivered plated meals.

“We started doing nourishing food in bulk,” said Gomez. They designed affordable, vacuum-packed prepared meals with meat and vegetarian options. The kits start at $49 for 12 servings .

Chancho did the same, selling tortillas and prepared meat and vegetarian fillings by the pound.

“We were able to do it because of our purchasing power. We knew people were struggling.”

They even included toilet paper and eggs in the beginning, because that’s what people needed.

“We adapted.”

The meal kits don’t have a huge profit margin, but when Gomez heard back from a single mom who thanked him and said the bulk meals were the first fresh, nutritious meals her kids had since the lockdown began, he knew he had to keep going.

The first week wasn’t very encouraging — they had just three per cent of pre-COVID sales. Each week there was an incremental increase, and now sales are closer to 35 per cent of what they used to be. They are breaking even.

“My staff are my heroes,” said Gomez. “They are on the front lines. I wanted to save their jobs.”

Gomez believes people’s priorities have shifted. As Nuba and Chancho reopen for dining-in, he plans to continue to create bulk prepared meals and is exploring the option of selling them in supermarkets.

“People want healthier food and more traceable food, and that’s being handled in a safe way.”

He believes restaurants face a challenging future. Patios will help, but inside dining establishments need to build customer confidence slowly.

“If we are safe and we keep our customers safe, we can succeed.”