In Conversation with Jennifer Henshaw, Restaurants Canada’s Regional Vice President for the Prairies and the North
Jennifer Henshaw joined the Restaurants Canada national team to serve as the Regional Vice President for the Prairies (including Saskatchewan and Manitoba) and the North (the Territories) in February, 2022. Formerly in the role of Director of Provincial Government Relations for Western Canada, alongside Regional Vice President for Western Canada Mark Von Schellwitz, Jennifer has brought her passion for government relations and communications to become a strong voice for the restaurant sector.
Jennifer’s experience and leadership style evolved in her previous roles as Senior Press Secretary to Alberta’s Minister of Energy and Press Secretary to the Associate Minister of Natural Gas and Electricity. Prior to that, Jennifer earned her knowledge and grew her passion for the prairies over six years where she lived, grew her family and successfully advocated for independent businesses in the Prairie region with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. Jennifer is also an accomplished equestrian and admits that government relations and horses are her “happy place”.
MM: Let’s start with a little bit of your origin story.
I’m originally from the GTA—I grew up in Etobicoke, Ontario and moved to the Caledon Hills with my family when I was about 12. I went to Western University in London and graduated with an Honours specialization in Political Science and History. I then went to law school at the University of Bristol in England and got my LLB, helping to pay for my groceries and living costs while I was across the pond by working in the hospitality sector—everything from bartending to serving. You name it, I did it. I earned some “boots on the ground” experience at that time. And I’ve been out West now for about a decade.
MM: How did you find your way into politics and to the Prairies?
I’ve been plugged into politics from a young age—since I was 12 or 13 years old. Since then, I’ve had the privilege to work for some amazing people and have had some pretty incredible experiences, like interning in the strategic planning department of the PMO while I finished my undergrad. After graduating, I was asked to join Andrew Scheer’s office—he is the Member of Parliament for Regina-Qu’Appelle, and at that time he was the first assistant Speaker of the House—that was my first brush with the Prairies. I’ve spent some time working on The Hill, and that helped me get a better understanding of the inner workings of government, the day-to-day hum, the legislative process and policy development. It also gave me a strong start on developing a network of contacts, many of whom I am still close with. After finishing in Andrew’s office, I crossed the pond to begin law school in Bristol, England.
After graduating, I realized that practising wasn’t the direction I wanted to head, so I took a broader perspective on how I could make my legal education work for me. I came to the crossroads of advocacy and public policy and headed west to work for a government relations firm, but got pulled back over to the other side of the table again to work for Joan Crockatt, who was the Member of Parliament for Calgary Centre at the time. This was a very vibrant city-centre riding and my first opportunity to experience Calgary’s food scene. After a change in government in Alberta, in January 2015, my husband and I took a chance and moved to Regina (in -30°C weather, driving a U-Haul!). I’d been offered an advocacy role with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) which I accepted. I spent six years there advocating for small businesses in Saskatchwan and Manitoba as well as the North for a period of time.
MM: Is this where you started working with the restaurant sector within an advocacy capacity?
Yes. There was a significant contingent of foodservice businesses within the CFIB membership. Then, when the pandemic hit, having just given birth to our daughter, we had to make the decision to return to Calgary for family support reasons in the fall of 2020. I was also asked to join the government as the press secretary to the Associate Minister of Natural Gas and Electricity and, after a few months, was promoted to senior press secretary to Alberta’s Minister of Energy. It was very much in the hot seat—no two days were the same. It was an incredible learning opportunity. My role with Restaurants Canada has really helped me plug into some of the daily operational challenges restaurants are grappling with and understand which policy issues are impacting foodservice businesses.
MM: How did you end up joining the Restaurants Canada team?
When I saw the original position, Director of Provincial Government Relations for Alberta, was available, I was so excited. Friends who and former colleagues of mine had sent me the opportunity saying they thought it was right up my street and that I could do a great job based on my time at CFIB and my experience. I applied, and the rest is history. I’ve loved it ever since I started. My role was first expanded to include Saskatchewan, and I was recently promoted to VP for the Prairies and the North. I should also mention that my cousin and friend, Chef Michael Hunter, co-owns Antler Restaurant in Toronto, so I have family ties to the industry too. I spent my summers in Muskoka, Ontario at my family’s cottage, so one of my first jobs was flipping burgers at a burger joint outside of the IGA in Port Carling. I served at a golf and country club and a Sherwood Inn on Lake Joseph. When I was at Western I worked for a catering company to pay rent and put gas in my Sunfire. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun, and gave me a real appreciation for the hustle of the sector and the day-to-day challenges. You learn to love it a lot because it gives you flexibility, income and opportunity. It’s also given me great memories and insight on how to navigate within the sector.
MM: The foodservice sector is often seen as a kind of “canary in the coalmine” or early indicator of demographic, economic and social change. What are some of the changes to the foodservice sector you’ve seen since your involvement?
I don’t think anyone goes into the restaurant sector thinking it will be “easy money”. I think people get into it because they’re passionate about the food they make, they’re passionate about serving their customers and their love of being a gathering place in their communities. Coming out of COVID we’ve seen the industry change, some say for the better, some say for the worse. Overall, I think we’ve seen the restaurant sector become more nimble, and I think it’s had to learn to adapt further to labour shortages and challenges. Resiliency only goes so far, and even before the pandemic only about 50 per cent of restaurants make it past their first couple of years. My cousin is a great example of the shift we’ve seen in the industry. I think it’s amazing that we’re still attracting such young, hardworking and talented people to the industry. I always say that he and his colleagues across the breadth of the industry are the future—they’re focused on fresh, local ingredients, constantly switching up their menus and really finding their corner in the market.
MM: Are there any unique qualities or challenges for operators in the Prairies?
The foodservice sector in the Prairies is struggling with a lot of the same issues we’re seeing across Canada, the labour shortage especially. The thing I always explain about Saskatchewan is that it’s a huge province with a relatively small population. There are great, vibrant food scenes in Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw—you name it. The distances between cities and towns are spread out, with over 600 municipalities and thousands of small towns and hamlets. Labour shortages are acute for a lot of the service sector, and it’s a different, more challenging situation when it comes to small towns and rural communities—and there are a lot of each in Sask. It’s a lot of the same, but it’s more acute, given the geography. Because Saskatchewan is land-locked, transportation costs are fairly high and out-of-region ingredients need to travel a long way.
MM: Transportation issues are a perennial issue. What are local operators doing to mitigate?
One of Saskatchewan’s major economic drivers is ag, so many operators are focusing on local. There’s a lot of focus on it Saskatchewan. There’s a long growing season, incredible farming operations…all you have to do is drive across Highway 1 and you see it. Local restaurants are switching their ingredients on a seasonal basis, focusing on what’s abundant and local.
MM: What’s the Prairie restaurant scene like? Is it unique?
It’s tough to put a finger on it. There are a lot of independently-owned restaurants that are fiercely proud of being in Sask (as they should be!), and there are many local or Western-Canada multi-units like Leopold’s, Western Pizza, and Trifon’s PizzaTavern. In Regina, there are many incredible restaurants like Avenue Restaurant, Ginger Garlic…Odla in Saskatoon… Déjà vu in Moose Jaw…an exceptional, hyper-local restaurant scene has sprung up and developed in the Prairies. People here are pretty “loud and proud” about their restaurant scene—the same goes for Winnipeg—and they should be. On the Prairies, everything is local, from the friends you make who become like family, junior hockey leagues, and your favourite spots in town to grab a bite and cerebrate life’s big events.
MM: What do you hope to achieve in your role, and what’s on your schedule for the next quarter or so?
This is a new role for me, and one I am taking on with a lot of enthusiasm and a drive to get down to work. My goals are to really plug into the issues the foodservice sector is really grappling with in our region. I have a strong understanding of what they are, but I am looking forward to spending time in Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, and the places in between to meet with and get to know the industry even more. My goal is to strengthen Restaurants Canada’s presence and make sure the sector’s key budget asks are front and centre as we enter budget season. I will be making trips out to Saskatchewan and Manitoba to sit down with restaurant owners and other stakeholder groups to build bridges and look for opportunities to work together. For the most part, governments at all levels across the country are keen to put the pandemic and its impact in the rear view mirror. But, many in the restaurant sector came out of it under an oppressive pile of debt, having lost crucial staff, and are now grappling with skyrocketing inflation. It’s a bit of a perfect storm. It’s critically important our government comes to the table ready to help the sector recover and takes the “do no harm” approach with respect to their policy development. I have my work cut out for me, for sure. Manitoba has an upcoming election in fall 2023, and we’re looking for commitments to address the challenges facing the restaurant sector including rising inflationary pressures from food costs to equipment and everything in between, acute labour shortages, and making wholesale pricing available to all liquor licensees for all types of beverage alcohol products.
Jennifer welcomes operators in the Prairies and the North to contact her with any
questions or just to connect:
Jennifer’s Winnipeg Food Experience Shortlist
There are so many amazing restaurants to choose from in Winnipeg, it’s nearly impossible to whittle it down to just four, so consider this a starting point that offers different experiences, flavours and price points.
Nola is a brand new concept from Chef Emily Butcher and The Burnley Place
Hospitality Group. Located in the heart of St. Boniface, Nola celebrates the Pacific Northwest upbringing of Chef Butcher, through share plates, in a Fun, Unique, and Elegant environment.
101-300 Tache Avenue
Winnipeg, MB. R2H 2A2 | www.nolawpg.com
Reason to visit: “Nola offers very creative dishes, in a beautiful atmosphere.”
Capital Grill and Bar
A casual restaurant offering an updated take on comfort food prepared by
Chef Wayne Martin and his talented team. Their creative bar offers seasonal and classic cocktails, a great selection of local and draught beers on tap as well as an eclectic mix of approachable wines from around the world.
3116 Roblin Boulevard
Winnipeg, MB R3R 0C1 | www.capitalwinnipeg.com/capital-roblin
275 Broadway #100
Winnipeg, MB R3C 4M6 | www.capitalwinnipeg.com/capital-broadway
Reason to visit: “Incredible food made with local ingredients and a wonderful staff.”
East India Company
Offering one of the most extensive five-star South Asian menus for lunch and dinner in Canada, they are known for their endless mouth-watering buffets which, for the last 50 years, have changed daily and include a salad bar, chutneys, pickles, yogurts, appetizers, sizzlers, up to 25 hot entrees, and a decadent dessert bar.
349 York Avenue
Winnipeg, MB R3C 3S9 | www.eastindiaco.com
Reason to visit: “Amazing buffet and very friendly service.”
Winnipeg’s hugely popular and busy brunch restaurant serves up flavours from chef Chris Gama that range from the Mediterranean to Latin America.
123 Princess Street
Winnipeg, MB R3B 1K8 | www.clementinewinnipeg.com
Reason to visit: “Brunch!! Fried chicken on toast. Need I say more?!?”
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