Farm to Trouble: One Restaurant’s Journey Back to Normalcy

There's a long road ahead, but Burdock and Co.'s Andrea Carlson isn't playing chicken.

“We can do DoorDash…”

It was Monday, March 16, and Andrea Carlson had just made a decision that she knew was coming, but dreaded nonetheless. Burdock and Co., her award-winning temple to locavorism at Main and 11th, was going to close down. Though Dr. Bonnie Henry wouldn’t make the official call for restaurants to shut their doors for another four days (and a good many would hold on to the bitter end), Carslon had consulted with her staff, chatted with her architect partner Kevin Bismanis and concluded that closing was the appropriate response to the wanton inappropriateness that is COVID-19. The fact that she had just finished two near-perfect services the previous weekend helped soften the blow—on both nights, the room was full of regulars and well-wishers who knew that the opportunity to immerse themselves in the world of Burdock would soon be no more.

Even three months later, the chef still gets emotional when she recalls those three fateful days. In the restaurant industry, everyone talks about staff and customers as “family,” but while it’s a bit of a cliché at many big commercial spots, at Burdock the phrase has real weight. On a given night the 30-seat space only has three chefs, three servers, a dishwasher and a manager—who also works the floor when needed. And it was this tight group, expressing their concerns about working in radically uncertain circumstances, that led her to pull the plug.

Choosing to do the right thing might be easy (well, for people like Carlson it is), but figuring out how to keep the ship afloat while doing it—not so much. At first, Carlson planned to pivot to takeout through one of the nascent food-delivery systems that were rapidly gaining steam at the time. An Instagram post quickly went up announcing the closing, but also promising that DoorDash (endearingly misspelled as “Door Dash”) would fill the void.

But when the chef put down her apron and picked up her calculator, she realized it wasn’t going to work. “At that early stage, DoorDash’s take was still 30 percent, and it quickly became clear that, after their take, it wouldn’t be worth our while,” she says. Add to that the fact that Burdock’s cuisine—exquisitely prepared, vegetable-forward dishes—is not made for takeout containers and long drives. So, how the hell was the rent going to get paid?

The answer: fried chicken and American cheese.

Before COVID hit, Burdock had seen a banner year. In a city that always values the next new thing, the restaurant had become that rarity: a place whose reputation and success was growing consistently each year. This last year—their sixth—had actually been the most profitable to date, with a cadre of regulars that was frequently bolstered by scores of tourists. To top it off, Carlson published the long-anticipated Burdock & Co. cookbook to rave reviews. But how does that saying go about best laid plans?

The news wasn’t all dire. Carlson also owns Harvest Community Foods in Chinatown, and their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes went from a 50-boxes-a-run insider’s secret to suddenly shipping out 400 weekly orders of local produce to a nervous populace wanting to secure their bounty while staying put. But where many a businessperson would see this as a new profit centre, Carslon is incapable of taking advantage. She had first set up the CSA project seven years ago to help connect consumers with the small farms she had long admired (like Glorious Organics and Masa Farms). It wasn’t so much about making a profit as it was about increasing the recognition of the food supply chain in Vancouver. So, while she was becoming successful in that mission, it still wasn’t helping her sagging bottom line. In fact, it made it worse: because her revenue increased (though not her profits), she was no longer eligible for federal assistance.

In a typical story, this would be where the good news comes. Where the white knight rolls in and saves the day for the deserving hero. But that’s not how COVID works. Once the DoorDash option was shelved, Carlson sat down and wrote a wonderfully ambitious menu. She would work alone in the kitchen, and the menu was set at a stunningly low price of $25 for a meal sourced with nary a Sysco truck in sight and cooked by one of the city’s most acclaimed chefs. But it still wasn’t enough. And the much-heralded announcement that restaurants could sell wine with takeout? Pretty much a bust for a restaurant with a list so meticulously sourced that it can’t be replicated by a trip to the BCLDB.

So, she lowered the prices further, and within a few weeks she reached some level of stability. By frying (free-range) chicken and slinging (exquisite) burgers, Carlson has been able to keep the lights on. She’s not paying herself, mind you, and partner Kevin has put down his drafting pencil to hand out the takeout, but it’s staving off Armageddon.

By early June many of the city’s larger eateries were opening up, but for a shoebox of a spot like Burdock that two-metre requirement renders opening moot. On top of that, the general manager gave notice, throwing another wrench into an operation that’s barely keeping above water. In the last few weeks, the gradual opening of other stores (and farmers’ markets) has led to a 50-percent drop-off in the CSA boxes, but she’s still happy for the new customers she’s converted. But there was some good news mixed in too: her application for a patio on the restaurant’s leafy northern border has been given a much needed green light from the newly reasonable City, and the expanded seating means the restaurant has a chance of operating at a profit. And there are other things that keep her going: every Sunday night, the staff stops by and gets fed by her (for free) to stay connected and to keep their spirits up. And in mid-April they had a low-key, properly spaced get-together in a park to celebrate Burdock’s seven-year anniversary.

It’s these moments that remind Carlson what’s important, and why she chose this path. She takes a moment to think about it… and then gets back to making the best takeout veggie lasagna in the city.