Rising costs, lack of workers spell the end for popular Mount Stewart restaurant

Owner Wally Steele says finding enough staff became such an issue that he couldn't keep Laurie's Country Kitchen open consistently enough to break even. (Brittany Spencer/CBC - image credit)
Owner Wally Steele says finding enough staff became such an issue that he couldn't keep Laurie's Country Kitchen open consistently enough to break even. (Brittany Spencer/CBC - image credit)

A popular restaurant in Mount Stewart, P.E.I. has served its last meal, with its owner saying staff shortages and rising operating costs left him having to close his doors.

Laurie's Country Kitchen, which had been open for nearly five years, permanently closed earlier this week.

"We had a good run; we got through COVID," said owner Wally Steele. "But with the cost of everything right now doubling and tripling, and not being able to get staff, it basically kills you at the end of the day."

Steele isn't the only business owner facing these challenges. Industries across P.E.I., particularly the tourism and hospitality sector, have been struggling to find staff this year.

But in the last six months, Steele said finding enough staff to stay open consistently became an issue. He had to close the restaurant on short notice, bringing in no revenue, on the days he couldn't find people to work.

With the cost of food, supplies and utilities climbing drastically in the past few months, Steele said closing for even one day was something he could no longer afford.

Brittany Spencer/CBC
Brittany Spencer/CBC

"If you lose one day, you've lost anything you're going to make for the week. You lose three days, you've gone behind," he said. "That's the issue everybody is getting into: trying to get enough staff to actually open your restaurant every day and be open seven days a week."

Do I pull the plug and go back to normal life, or do I keep doing this and lose my shirt? — Wally Steele

Eventually it got to the point that certain items became too expensive to offer on the menu without significantly raising his prices, Steele said.

"You can only go so far and the stress level starts to gets too high. You kind of have to look at it as, 'Hey, do I pull the plug and go back to normal life, or do I keep doing this and lose my shirt?'"

'It just feels like somebody died'

Laurie Boyle has been working with Steele from the beginning, decorating the restaurant with countless pieces of art and trinkets she's collected over the years. She said she's baked countless cakes for customers during her time at the restaurant, something she will miss dearly.

"It just feels like somebody died, really. It's sad," she said.

Talking to CBC News while emptying the shelves under the counter where she spent hours chatting with regular visitors, Boyle fondly remembered dressing up on holidays and painting the restaurant windows to match the changing seasons.

It's the staff and customers she will miss the most — a community that compares to a big family.

"It's going to be hard, especially with our morning crew, our coffee guys," Boyle said. "It's all about the chatter and the gossip."

Brittany Spencer/CBC
Brittany Spencer/CBC

Many customers have turned to social media to share their memories of the restaurant and give Boyle and Steele their support.

Delores Williams was one of them. She lives in Montague and drove to Mount Stewart on a regular basis to eat at the restaurant with her family.

"It should speak highly of them because we would bypass Montague to go to their restaurant. We enjoyed the atmosphere there. It was friendly, it was comfortable," Williams said.

"I wanted them to know how much they were appreciated and how much of an impact they made on the community."

Many have left hospitality sector

Louis-Philippe Gauthier with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business says Steele's tale is a story he's now hearing too often.

"When you're faced with pressures on costs that move around your balance sheet, and the reality that you can't bring in the revenue like you used to by just being open because you don't have the staff — that's a reality that's extremely hard for small businesses," Gauthier said.

He said one factor at play is the number of people moving out of certain sectors since the pandemic began, specifically restaurants and hospitality.

Gauthier said those industries were significantly affected by public health restrictions over the past few years, which could be contributing to the number of people leaving those industries.

Brittany Spencer/CBC
Brittany Spencer/CBC

He also said many small businesses in Atlantic Canada still have not recovered from the financial impact of the pandemic, meaning lost revenues hurt the bottom line even more.

"There's still a substantial number of small businesses that are not back to pre-pandemic revenues and there are debts that accumulated there and costs are rising," Gauthier said.

Shared memories

For Steele, the past five years of sharing meals and memories with his staff and customers have been worth all the recent challenges.

While he's sad to let the restaurant go, he said he's proud of what his team built there.

"The community made me feel like part of the family," Steele said.