How Vancouver’s St. Lawrence is innovating both on the menu and off

The highly touted restaurant is leading the game in more ways than one.

St. Lawrence is treating its customers to a new set menu every month

The highly touted restaurant is leading the game in more ways than one

It didn’t take long for St. Lawrence to make an impact. When the French-Canadian restaurant arrived in Vancouver’s Railtown in 2017, it immediately started gobbling up awards and accolades.

Chef/owner J-C Poirier’s take on the cuisine of his Quebec childhood even won national acclaim, and St. Lawrence was named the second-best restaurant in Canada last year.

Though very few customers have exited his doors unsatisfied, Poirier’s more lasting legacy may very well be the business model he’s brought to his eatery.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he and his team knew something had to change. St. Lawrence had long been using $25 cancellation fees for reservations, a tactic mostly unheard of elsewhere in the city. “It worked well, reduced the no-shows,” Poirier recalls.

But with COVID, the stakes were higher. Once restaurants were allowed to reopen at 50-percent capacity, no-shows were fairly devastating. For a small restaurant like St. Lawrence, “if you have three tables that don’t show up that night, it means we don’t make any money,”  Poirier says. “It’s that simple.”

So the chef went about shaking things up in a way that would both be attractive to customers and more reliable for his business and staff.

Last month, Poirier and his team announced a revolving three-course set menu (patrons get a choice of three options per course) that focuses on a different French locale every month. Septembers menu highlights the cuisine of Normandy, with dishes like stuffed rabbit.

The change is easier for the kitchen because staff know exactly which ingredients they’ll need for the month, and it also makes sense for the fare. “What we’ve noticed in the past is that a four-top shows up and wants to share two dishes,” Poirier says. “But French food isn’t about that; it’s not about sharing plates.”

The price is $65 per person and—heres the kicker—customers pay when they make the reservation. Any other costs, such as wine, are billed at the end of the meal. This gives Poirier dependable income to bank on. And if someone can no longer make their reservation? Just put it down as credit and reschedule.

Chef J-C Poirier feels like customers are taking to his approach

Poirier says that for the most part, customers have been happy with the change. “Maybe before the pandemic, people weren’t quite ready—they couldn’t understand why you’d pay ahead to have a reservation because it’s been the same system for decades, centuries. But with [the pandemic] people went, Ah, OK, that actually makes sense. If you want food from a restaurant during the pandemic, you’d pay ahead. People really connected with it, and it made sense to them.”

The prepaid system isn’t exactly brand new in other parts of the world. Poirier notes that it’s common in Europe and in fine dining haunts throughout the U.S. But he’s still seen some reticence from other local establishments. “Everybody was really scared about the idea of customers not coming to their restaurants because they have to prepay,” he says. “It was the same with the cancellation fees, restaurateurs thinking it would affect their business.”

Poirier concedes that the prepaid model isn’t for everyone, but he is seeing more cancellation fees at other places in town. “They’re adopting the cancellation fee or deposit when you make a reservation, because they’ve seen more and more no-shows. Especially when you’re at low capacity, it really hurts.”