Chief Keith has tackled the pandemic head-on with his Meuwly’s brand and is working to break down barriers around mental health.
By Tom Nightingale
It’s fair to say that Peter Keith has embarked on the challenges posed by COVID-19. Over the past 15 years, the seasoned restaurateur has excelled in cooking competitions, worked in top Canadian restaurants and co-founded Meuwly’s, an artisanal deli market in Edmonton.
With the onset of COVID-19, however, its priorities have shifted instead. Not only has Meuwly’s – like so many operators over the past 16 months or so – moved to online operations, but Keith has joined with other mental health advocates in moving the conversation forward and trying to break the taboo. surrounding the speaking out on an increasingly vital subject.
Looking to the future, he is encouraged and excited by the resilience and innovation he has seen from the industry throughout the pandemic, as well as the heightened sense of unity and support. of the local community.
CRFN caught up with the Culinary Federationthe National Secretary to discuss his inspiration, the challenges and positives of the pandemic and the direction we can take from here.
* This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the spark that really ignited your passion for catering?
Peter Keith: What I remember most clearly is watching cooking competition TV shows like “Iron Chef” and “The Next Great Chef” when I was 10 or 11 and feeling really inspired. by the energy of the kitchen and the appearance of unwavering determination the faces of the chefs. I also remember going to a hotel in Jasper and seeing the chefs in their big white hats. It was all very attractive. When I was 14 I had a dishwashing job and as soon as I walked into the restaurant I had a mission: to learn to cook, to climb the ranks, to go to cooking school – to be one of those chefs. . I walked into the kitchens of Culinary School in Edmonton and was exposed to the highest level in the industry when I was 16-17. I worked 30 hours a week in high school out of motivation and passion. It really cemented it for me. I knew it was my way. I was incredibly fortunate to compete in Brazil with Skills Canada and win gold for Canada at the World Skills Americas competition, then represent Alberta at the 2012 Culinary Olympics and get another medal of ‘gold. We were a team of twenty years facing these professional groups from all over the world, it was magical.
What were the first important turning points in your career?
Keith: While working at an upscale restaurant in Vancouver, I began to realize that being online was not a long-term option for me: despite an incredible employer and environment, the physical toll and stress. were exhausting. I realized that I needed something that would fit my life a little better. I came back to Edmonton and got a business degree. It was by chance and eagerness that I met my future business partner, who was looking for a food company to host on their premises. A good friend of mine from a former kitchen job was diving into the world of charcuterie. The three of us sat down and decided to move on with some cold cuts. It was in 2016, and that’s how Meuwly was born.
Deli products have become popular in recent years. Did you see this request from the start?
Keith: It’s been a whirlwind for five years! We got into it, started planning, designing, renovating the space. Building an artisanal, tailor-made and made-to-measure meat processing kitchen is a lot of work and time. As we were building we started to see more demand for local deli, sausage, so we rented a small space and started producing meat for local restaurants. We wanted to do test batches and small runs of new products – that’s how our subscription box was born, from a need to use samples and a desire to stay busy while we built our kitchen and our permanent showcase. Again, there was a fortune: we took to Facebook, within weeks we had local media coverage and finally sold out our packages with a waiting list of around 100 people. We knew we were on to something. From there, we developed these two channels: wholesale boxes and subscriptions.
How has the impact of COVID-19 changed your daily life and that of Meuwly?
Keith: Our greatest immediate concern was the likely loss of $ 10,000 of perishables in our refrigerator with the demise of our retail channels. The only thing we could do was make a basic eCommerce store and make different boxes of groceries. We got to a point where we realized that we were now in the online business. I never would have thought of a deli as a business that could create a meaningful e-commerce experience, but this is where the world is now and what people are looking for. We wanted to become a platform for other small food producers and farmers to fill the void of in-person sales avenues. Customers were looking for comfort food, but as they got used to this new reality I think they started looking to replicate the experiences they were missing. That’s when we started to introduce our do-it-yourself charcuterie kit, the picnic boxes. It’s very experiential now. People recreate restaurant meals in their own homes or in their backyards.
Discussions about mental health within the restaurant and hospitality industry have really gained in importance amid the impact of the pandemic. Do you think this can be a catalyst for real change on this front?
Keith: Mental health has generally been about the donât ask, donât tell in foodservice. The ‘harden up’ attitude hurt, I think. When it comes to my employment and support systems, I am one of the lucky ones. But I have seen friends and colleagues struggle – burnout, mental health issues, substance use. I also think mental health awareness, inclusiveness and diversity go hand in hand. In the weeds try to be the voice of these people. When I heard about the start of In The Weeds and the work of Chef Paul Shufelt and the team, I really felt drawn to it. I wanted to contribute to positive and lasting change in the industry. It will be more meaningful than any dish I have ever cooked or any competition I have ever won. After all, I gave up cooking in part because of this stress. We need to end the stigma, get people talking, break this ridiculous facade. The time has come ; people are ready to talk. We want to be a catalyst for change, try to lead from behind and start the conversations. We have organized roundtable type events, fundraising initiatives, funded counseling sessions. I think we are already seeing the first signs of a culture change and COVID-19 has made the need for that change 100% stronger. The pandemic has been a huge benefit, showing that much of our community and our country now views restaurant staff as essential frontline workers. People’s health is really at stake.
The resilience and creativity demonstrated during COVID-19 has been so encouraging to all of us. It’s time for the impossible question: where do we go from here?
Keith: A lot of structural things are starting to change. Most food businesses will have online operations in the future, but more than that, restaurateurs are realizing that it is so important to diversify their business model these days, by finding innovative revenue streams. People have certainly become more creative and resilience is showing through. The first wave of COVID-19 sparked many difficult conversations. It’s clichÃ© but we come out stronger, more diverse, more creative. I think this is the kind of change we needed from the start to be a more resilient business model. There is still work to be done: our company needs to have a truly mature, honest and introspective look at how we interact with restaurants and foodservice. Food is never cheap, so if you get food on the cheap, someone down the line is taken advantage of, be it the farmer, the line cook. It takes an incredible amount of care and work to change that. I hope COVID-19 has started this kind of talk. But for now, we’re just extremely grateful to the Canadians who kept us afloat, ordering an obscene amount of take-out at the expense of their budget and waistline etc. If I ever have grandchildren, this sense of community is something I will share with them about the pandemic. I will remember it all my life. This explains why we all got into this business and what makes our community so great.
Find Peter Keith on LinkedIn here.