The pandemic has been hard on restaurants, as physical distancing requirements have led to many of them having to shut their doors, and do their best to stay alive however they can.
Yet COVID-19 lockdowns have also presented an opportunity for some. Pizza consumption has surged during the pandemic. And rather than bringing the family down to the local pizza place, Canadians have moved in droves toward making the frozen variety the pie of choice.
According to market research firm Nielsen, frozen pizza sales rose 20 per cent in the year up to the middle of March to reach $650 million across the country. Sales of premade crusts and do-it-yourself dough are up even more.
Nearly three-quarters of all Canadian households bought some sort of do-it-yourself pizza this year, and online sale are way up, according to Nielsen.
Archie’s Pizza in Starbuck, Man., just outside of Winnipeg, sold a big slice of them.
Originally started by Archie Mollot in the 1930s, his grandson Phil Mollot is now one of the owners of the family business. Over the years, it’s evolved from a meat business into more of a pizza-selling empire.
That transition started about 20 years ago as a small side business, but now selling pies is about two-thirds of their revenue.
“We were selling … about three times more than usual for a month and a half to three months at least,” the younger Mollot says of his experience in the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 lockdowns swept across Canada
Even after settling down from those crazy early pandemic days, today the business is still selling about 15 per cent more than it was before this all started. Archie-made pizzas are now sold in 25 stores across Manitoba, from Winnipeg, to Brandon, to Portage, and all points in between.
While he’s glad to be busy, that growth has come with challenges as it was hard to keep up with demand.
“We’ve learned a lot and we could handle a third wave, but I don’t see it being anything like like the first one. I think that was just people not understanding that we’re not going to run out of food.”
Archie’s pizza isn’t the only one seeing a surge in demand from hungry customers.
Toronto restauranteur Ali Khan Lalani said he was scared, last March, when he had to close his newly opened pizza place, General Assembly Pizza, because of the pandemic, not really knowing when he could open up again.
But on a trip to the grocery store getting food for his family, he noticed the store was limiting frozen pizza sales to four per customer. That gave him an idea: he could use his restaurant’s ample space to make pizzas that his customers could have delivered to cook and eat at home.
“We took off our restaurant hats and we put on our grocery hats,” he said in an interview.
“We’ve got the dough, we’ve got the cheese, we’ve got the sauce. Let’s try to roll out a pizza kit. We actually launched the pizza kit on the third day after everyone closed and we were overwhelmed by the response.”
A year ago he was a restaurant owner, but today Lalani is the head of a direct-to-consumer subscription service, selling customizable packs that will deliver up to 10 of his half dozen flavours of pizza a month to his customers.
The idea has been such a success that he’s now trying to expand to bigger locations around Toronto and beyond. The company recently tried to raise $3.5 million to fund expansion plans, and investor appetite was so great they ended up taking in $13 million. Now they’re planning to go public on the Toronto Stock Exchange as soon as this year. That could provide the capital to make General Assembly pizzas be available across Canada — if not the world.
“I was blown away and I feel extremely fortunate and humbled to have that much interest in our business and what we were doing” he said.
That interest comes as no surprise to Jonathan Waze, the editor of Restaurant Business, an industry trade publication based in Minneapolis.
In an interview, he said he’s not surprised to see the pizza business is booming in this pandemic-induced era where everyone is even more online than usual, since it has a long history of being far more technologically savvy than most other types of restaurants.
“Go back to the ’90s and pizza chains were actually the first restaurants to really embrace the web as a source of sales and ordering,” Waze said.
Nearly 30 years ago, Pizza Hut earned the distinction of becoming the first company to ever sell anything over the World Wide Web, when they opened their web portal, then called PizzaNet, in 1994.
First thing sold online: pizza, in 1994. <a href=”https://t.co/jNcOESGpJn”>pic.twitter.com/jNcOESGpJn</a>
Though bare bones, customers could type in a order, phone number and address and get a pizza delivered. Few did at the time, but it’s hard to imagine a successful restaurant business that hasn’t fully embraced the internet now.
Waze says many parts of the food industry have been seeking to move more into direct-to-consumer selling, and away from physical locations, and the pandemic may have presented the pizza industry with the perfect opportunity to push harder in that direction.
“It’s fascinating,” Waze said of the type of subscription service that Lalani is pioneering. “I don’t see any reason why something like this can’t work.”
It’s the future
While he’s as surprised as anyone to go from making pizzas to becoming what he calls a “data driven e-commerce business” ultimately Lalani says he’s still a restauranteur at heart. He can’t wait for the day when he’ll get to reopen his flagship location in downtown Toronto to diners wishing to eat in again.
But with all he’s learned, he knows the direct-to-consumer model is the future. He’s all for it.
“The frozen pizza business is a $17 billion … a year business in North America,” he said. “And we just want our slice.”
CANADA STOCKS – TSX falls 0.14% to 19,201.28
* The Toronto Stock Exchange’s TSX falls 0.14 percent to 19,201.28
* Leading the index were Stantec Inc <STN.TO>, up 3.4%, Imperial Oil Ltd, up 3.3%, and Corus Entertainment Inc, higher by 2.9%.
* Lagging shares were Aphria Inc, down 14.2%, Village Farms International Inc, down 9.9%, and Aurora Cannabis Inc, lower by 9.4%.
* On the TSX 91 issues rose and 134 fell as a 0.7-to-1 ratio favored decliners. There were 24 new highs and no new lows, with total volume of 228.0 million shares.
* The most heavily traded shares by volume were Toronto-dominion Bank, Royal Bank Of Canada and Suncor Energy Inc.
* The TSX’s energy group fell 0.32 points, or 0.3%, while the financials sector climbed 2.46 points, or 0.7%.
* West Texas Intermediate crude futures rose 0.52%, or $0.31, to $59.63 a barrel. Brent crude rose 0.4%, or $0.25, to $63.2 [O/R]
* The TSX is up 10.1% for the year.
Air Canada signs C$5.9 billion government aid package, agrees to buy Airbus, Boeing jets
By David Ljunggren and Allison Lampert
OTTAWA/MONTREAL (Reuters) -Air Canada, struggling with a collapse in traffic due to the COVID-19 pandemic, reached a deal on Monday on a long-awaited aid package with the federal government that would allow it to access up to C$5.9 billion ($4.69 billion) in funds.
The agreement – the largest individual coronavirus-related loan that Ottawa has arranged with a company – was announced after the airline industry criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government for dawdling. The United States and France acted much more quickly to help major carriers.
Canada‘s largest carrier, which last year cut over half its workforce, or 20,000 jobs, and other airlines have been negotiating with the government for months on a coronavirus aid package.
In February, Air Canada reported a net loss for 2020 of C$4.65 billion, compared with a 2019 profit of C$1.48 billion.
As part of the deal, Air Canada agreed to ban share buybacks and dividends, cap annual compensation for senior executives at C$1 million a year and preserve jobs at the current level, which is 14,859.
It will also proceed with planned purchases of 33 Airbus SE 220 airliners and 40 Boeing Co 737 MAX airliners.
Chris Murray, managing director, equity research at ATB Capital Markets, said the deal took into account the “specific needs of Air Canada in the short and medium term without being overly onerous.”
He added: “It gives them some flexibility in drawing down additional liquidity as needed.”
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the government was still in negotiations with other airlines about possible aid.
Canada, the world’s second-largest nation by area, depends heavily on civil aviation to keep remote communities connected.
Opposition politicians fretted that further delays in announcing aid could result in permanent damage to the country.
Air Canada said it would resume services on nearly all of the routes it had suspended because of COVID-19.
‘SIGNIFICANT LAYER OF INSURANCE’
The deal removes a potential political challenge for the Liberals, who insiders say are set to trigger an election later this year.
The government has agreed to buy C$500 million worth of shares in the airline, at C$23.1793 each, or a 14.2% discount to Monday’s close, a roughly 6% stake.
“Maintaining a competitive airline sector and good jobs is crucially important,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters, adding the equity stake would allow taxpayers to benefit when the airline’s fortunes recovered.
The Canadian government previously approved similar loans for four other companies worth up to C$1.billion, including up to C$375 million to low-cost airline Sunwing Vacations Inc. The government has paid out C$73.47 billion under its wage subsidy program and C$46.11 billion in loans to hard-hit small businesses.
Michael Rousseau, Air Canada‘s president and chief executive officer, said the liquidity “provides a significant layer of insurance for Air Canada.”
Jerry Dias, head of the Unifor private-sector union, described the announcement as “a good deal for everybody.”
Unifor represents more than 16,000 members working in the air transportation sector.
But the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents roughly 10,000 Air Canada flight attendants, said the package protected the jobs of current workers rather than the 7,500 members of its union who had been let go by the carrier.
($1=1.2567 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa and Allison Lampert in Montreal; Additional reporting by Julie Gordon in Ottawa and Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru; Editing by Dan Grebler and Peter Cooney)
U.K. advises limiting AstraZeneca in under-30s amid clot worry
British authorities recommended Wednesday that the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine not be given to adults under 30 where possible because of strengthening evidence that the shot may be linked to rare blood clots.
The recommendation came as regulators both in the United Kingdom and the European Union emphasized that the benefits of receiving the vaccine continue to outweigh the risks for most people — even though the European Medicines Agency said it had found a “possible link” between the shot and the rare clots. British authorities recommended that people under 30 be offered alternatives to AstraZeneca. But the EMA advised no such age restrictions, leaving it up to its member-countries to decide whether to limit its use.
Several countries have already imposed limits on who can receive the vaccine, and any restrictions are closely watched since the vaccine, which is cheaper and easier to store than many others, is critical to global immunization campaigns and is a pillar of the UN-backed program known as COVAX that aims to get vaccines to some of the world’s poorest countries.
“This is a course correction, there’s no question about that,” Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said during a press briefing. “But it is, in a sense, in medicine quite normal for physicians to alter their preferences for how patients are treated over time.”
Van-Tam said the effect on Britain’s vaccination timetable — one of the speediest in the world — should be “zero or negligible,” assuming the National Health Service receives expected deliveries of other vaccines, including those produced by Pfizer and Moderna.
EU and U.K. regulators held simultaneous press conferences Wednesday afternoon to announce the results of investigations into reports of blood clots that sparked concern about the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The EU agency described the clots as “very rare” side effects. Dr Sabine Straus, chair of EMA’s Safety Committee, said the best data is coming from Germany where there is one report of the rare clots for every 100,000 doses given, although she noted far fewer reports in the U.K. Still, that’s less than the clot risk that healthy women face from birth control pills, noted another expert, Dr. Peter Arlett.
The agency said most of the cases reported have occurred in women under 60 within two weeks of vaccination — but based on the currently available evidence, it was not able to identify specific risk factors. Experts reviewed several dozen cases that came mainly from Europe and the U.K., where around 25 million people have received the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“The reported cases of unusual blood clotting following vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine should be listed as possible side effects of the vaccine,” said Emer Cooke, the agency’s executive director. “The risk of mortality from COVID is much greater than the risk of mortality from these side effects.”
Arlett said there is no information suggesting an increased risk from the other major COVID-19 vaccines.
The EMA’s investigation focused on unusual types of blood clots that are occurring along with low blood platelets. One rare clot type appears in multiple blood vessels and the other in veins that drain blood from the brain.
While the benefits of the vaccine still outweigh the risks, that assessment is “more finely balanced” among younger people who are less likely to become seriously ill with COVID-19, the U.K’s Van-Tam said.
“We are not advising a stop to any vaccination for any individual in any age group,” said Wei Shen Lim, who chairs Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization. “We are advising a preference for one vaccine over another vaccine for a particular age group, really out of the utmost caution rather than because we have any serious safety concerns.”
In March, more than a dozen countries, mostly in Europe, suspended their use of AstraZeneca over the blood clot issue. Most restarted — some with age restrictions — after the EMA said countries should continue using the potentially life-saving vaccine.
Britain, which relies heavily on AstraZeneca, however, continued to use it.
The suspensions were seen as particularly damaging for AstraZeneca because they came after repeated missteps in how the company reported data on the vaccine’s effectiveness and concerns over how well its shot worked in older people. That has led to frequently changing advice in some countries on who can take the vaccine, raising worries that AstraZeneca’s credibility could be permanently damaged, spurring more vaccine hesitancy and prolonging the pandemic.
Dr. Peter English, who formerly chaired the British Medical Association’s Public Health Medicine Committee, said the back-and-forth over the AstraZeneca vaccine globally could have serious consequences.
“We can’t afford not to use this vaccine if we are going to end the pandemic,” he said.
In some countries, authorities have already noted hesitance toward the AstraZeneca shot.
“People come and they are reluctant to take the AstraZeneca vaccine, they ask us if we also use anything else,” said Florentina Nastase, a doctor and co-ordinator at a vaccination centre in Bucharest, Romania. “There were cases in which people (scheduled for the AstraZeneca) didn’t show up, there were cases when people came to the centre and saw that we use only AstraZeneca and refused (to be inoculated).”
Meanwhile, the governor of Italy’s northern Veneto region had said earlier Wednesday that any decision to change the guidance on AstraZeneca would cause major disruptions to immunizations — at a time when Europe is already struggling to ramp them up — and could create more confusion about the shot.
“If they do like Germany, and allow Astra Zeneca only to people over 65, that would be absurd. Before it was only for people under 55. Put yourself in the place of citizens, it is hard to understand anything,” Luca Zaia told reporters.
The latest suspension of AstraZeneca came in Spain’s Castilla y Leon region, where health chief Veronica Casado said Wednesday that “the principle of prudence” drove her to put a temporary hold on the vaccine that she still backed as being both effective and necessary.
French health authorities had said they, too, were awaiting EMA’s conclusions, as were some officials in Asia.
On Wednesday, South Korea said it would temporarily suspend the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine in people 60 and younger. In that age group, the country is only currently vaccinating health workers and people in long-term care settings.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said it would also pause a vaccine rollout to school nurses and teachers that was to begin on Thursday, while awaiting the outcome of the EMA’s review.
But some experts urged perspective. Prof Anthony Harnden, the deputy chair of Britain’s vaccination committee, said that the program has saved at least 6,000 lives in the first three months and will help pave the way back to normal life.
“What is clear it that for the vast majority of people the benefits of the Oxford AZ vaccine far outweigh any extremely small risk,” he said. “And the Oxford AZ vaccine will continue to save many from suffering the devastating effects that can result from a COVID infection.”