Brewery and the Beast organizer Scott Gurney talks selling out in seconds and B.C.’s restaurant staffing crunch

The event returns to Victoria and Vancouver this September, but things will look a little different.

The event returns to Victoria and Vancouver this September, but things will look a little different

For all the things that may be different about Brewery and the Beast this year, ticket sales seemed to hold steady.

“We sold out as fast as the Internet could process tickets,” says Scott Gurney, founder of Victoria-based 17 Black Events, which puts on the famed food and drink festival in his hometown as well as in Vancouver and Calgary.

Although the latter event has yet to be scheduled, Gurney is excited to have Brewery and the Beast back in Victoria (September 12) and Vancouver (September 26) after missing 2020—the first year it hasn’t been in both B.C. cities since its Vancouver launch in 2013.

Not surprisingly, Brewery and the Beast will be back with the usual team of celebrated restaurants, plus a couple of new standouts. In Vancouver, that means quintesstial favourites like Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar, Nightingale, Juke Fried Chicken and founding partner Two Rivers Specialty Meats will be joined by newer eateries like Savio Volpe and Say Mercy!.

“They’re the best of the best because they’re the hardest-working restaurants out there, they hire the best employees, and they work really hard to put the best food on the plate,” Gurney says. “This is a way for them to show off who they are, instead of trying to compete with restaurants who have the marketing budgets to advertise between Hockey Night in Canada or American Idol.”

Many of the changes for this year’s edition are obvious. There will be hand sanitizer stations and a mandatory vaccination policy. And the event will be half the size of those in the past.

That’s thanks to the pandemic and to the fact that Gurney and his team announced the return of Brewery and the Beast soon after hearing the new public health orders in June.

“It was a conscious decision from the get-go to produce an event that had health and safety at the forefront,” he says. “So we decided, let’s keep it small this year, get back up on our feet again and showcase the best both cities have to offer in an event that’s safe and manageable.” 

But even if he wanted to put on a full-blown gathering the size of years’ past, Gurney says he couldn’t, given the staffing issues plaguing B.C.’s hospitality industry.

“There’s not enough restaurants that can commit to an event like Brewery and the Beast, because of the staffing shortages,” he explains, “which are caused by a lack of ability to pay larger wages because restaurants are cautious about raising prices to where they should be. It’s a big evil circle that’s happening right now. People ask us to sell more tickets, and we just can’t.”

Staff shortages have been reported around the province. Even the highly anticipated Collective Goods on Vancouver’s Commercial Street—from the owners of Brewery and the Beast participant Say Mercy!—has delayed its opening. And the problem is just as bad if not worse outside Vancouver, with Help Wanted signs in the door of many eateries on Vancouver Island and in the Interior.

“People say, Oh, I’ll go to Tofino or Whistler or the Okanagan, go skiing, eat some awesome food, go to the lake, drink at the best wineries in B.C., go surfing and eat at the best restaurants in Canada,” Gurney says. “That luxury is slipping away at a rate that I don’t think people have any idea how quickly it’s happening. The hospitality industry is in peril at the moment when it comes to staffing.”

He also believes that people who think the live events industry is going to come back without missing a beat are in for a surprise.

“There are potentially music festivals that won’t happen this year because there are no bathrooms to rent—the construction industry has gobbled them all up,” Gurney explains. “The boom in construction means more bathrooms for employees because of more job sites and now, because of supply chain shortages globally, more bathrooms aren’t getting to B.C., so Live Nation can’t host outdoor music festivals.”

At the end of the day, the real ones that will suffer are the would-be Brewery and the Beasts. Since the first edition in 2012, Gurney has been able to cultivate a loyal following to the point that his event will always sell out. But those trying to follow in its footsteps have some barriers waiting.

“We had to increase prices 45 percent in Victoria and 50 percent in Vancouver, and every single supplier quote we’re seeing is between 35 and 100 percent more than what it was in 2019,” Gurney says. “So if a new company tries to come to market and create an event, it’s going to be a brand-new event in a marketplace where people have no tangible experience with it at a big price.”