Hungry tourists on the Cabot Trail discover they'd better eat early — or not at all

·3 min read
The view from the top of Franey Trail in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, a popular stop on the Cabot Trail. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC - image credit)
The view from the top of Franey Trail in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, a popular stop on the Cabot Trail. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC - image credit)

Hungry tourists travelling the Cabot Trail this summer may be surprised to learn most restaurants close around dusk — or shutter completely on certain days of the week.

Those inconsistent hours of operation have some tourism professionals on the island concerned.

Terry Smith, CEO of Destination Cape Breton, told CBC's Mainstreet Cape Breton host Wendy Bergfeldt that limited restaurant hours are a result of staff shortages and a lack of housing for staff in communities across the island.

He says businesses are trying to do the best they can with the employees they have.

"Sometimes they're closing for a couple of days a week. If they were offering three meals a day, they may not be offering breakfast anymore," he said.

Smith said some workers left the restaurant industry during pandemic closures and are now employed in other sectors, which has left a labour gap that needs to be filled.

He said Destination Cape Breton, Cape Breton Partnership, and Cape Breton University's World Tourism Institute are searching for solutions to the staff shortage and hope to have a plan by the fall.

"If we can't address it, it's just going to damage our reputation as a destination. So we've really got to pull out all the stops to find concrete solutions to it," he said.

Old faithful

Submitted by Noelle Donovan
Submitted by Noelle Donovan

But there is at least one place that's open late at night. Brookside Takeout window in Ingonish operates seven days a week — a rarity in the area — and it bears the brunt of hungry visitors.

"We're the old faithful ones, we're always there," said Noelle Donovan, who has been working at the window for six seasons.

Donovan said tourists are overjoyed when they finally find a place that's open after dark.

Destination Cape Breton
Destination Cape Breton

"They go, 'Oh, my God, we are so happy you are here. Thank you for feeding us,'" she laughs.

Donovan said staff shortages have forced restaurants to cut back their hours or close down on Sundays, Mondays or Tuesdays. That means dozens of people end up at Brookside, looking for food when most other places are closed.

It makes for busy nights.

"We can go like three hours straight, say from 6 to 9, non-stop, non-stop, we get hit like big time," Donovan said.

She said if other businesses stayed open a bit later, it would take pressure off their small, four-person staff.

Opportunity lost

Dan Coffin, manager of tourism for Victoria County, speaks to hotel operators who see visitors landing at their doorsteps wanting something to eat.

While visitors from larger urban areas may be used to grabbing food at 9 p.m., Coffin said rural businesses don't have the population to sustain long operating hours.

Coffin said some restaurants in the Ingonish area have been working together to alternate which days of the week they close down. Instead of everyone shutting down on Mondays, some chose Thursday to close their doors.

"They probably lost a bit of money, but they decided to open Tuesday instead because nobody else was open on Tuesday and they wanted visitors to have an option," he said.

Coffin said that type of community collaboration may be one solution, or setting up grab and go stations for visitors arriving late at night.

"I think there's opportunity lost in a lot of areas," he said.