Hamilton

'Please Help! Come Work For Us': Restaurants hustle on eve of patio season as Ontario restrictions ease

Berkeley North in Hamilton is among restaurants in Ontario in a mad dash to hire staff for the beginning of patio season as COVID-19 restrictions slowly ease.

'The last time we were allowed to open, we spent weeks training 10 new staff,' says Berkeley North's owner

Patio season in Ontario is slated to reopen Friday. (Berkeley North)

One Hamilton restaurant is delivering a desperate plea for help on the eve of patio season, as COVID-19 restrictions slowly begin to ease in Ontario.

"Please Help! Come Work For Us," reads the sign on Berkeley North's Instagram account.

"It's a crazy time, so we played off a very popular Instagram account called Dude with Sign," says restaurant owner Matthew Webber.

Berkeley North and other restaurants are scrambling to hire staff for the Friday reopening of businesses and patios.

So far, seven people have sent in resumé's in response to the sign, applying for jobs as servers, cooks, bartenders and dishwashers.

Berkeley North has been a popular dining destination on King William Street for five years. Webber's vision of serving small plates of meticulously prepared and plated meals has gained a devout following.

Though cheerful, and thoughtful in a phone interview, there is no hiding the fact he's stressed about reopening. Hiring staff, stocking food, configuring seating, following COVID-19 protocols — all are concerns that make for sleepless nights.

Prior to COVID-19, Berkeley North could serve 47 diners inside and 10 on the patio. Then the yo-yo provincial opening and closing rules cast aside all hope of stability.

To be ready for Friday, he needs to hire five servers, two bartenders, two cooks and one dishwasher to bring the restaurant up to full staff, and they will all need training.

"The last time we were allowed to open, we spent weeks training 10 new staff," recalled Webber. "Then a week later came a shutdown and we had to let them all go. It cost a lot of money at a time when we were scrounging for every dollar. It's sad and stressful to lay people off."

Phase 1 takes effect Friday

The province was initially supposed to begin Phase 1 of the Roadmap to Reopen on June 14. Instead, it will take effect at 12:01 a.m. ET Friday. 

Phase 1 allows for changes like larger outdoor gatherings, patio dining with up to four people, and non-essential retail to open at 15 per cent capacity. Outdoor religious services, group exercise and day camps for children can also begin again, with limitations and health measures in place.
Matthew Webber, owner of Berkeley North restaurant in Hamilton, is scrambling to hire staff for the reopening of patio dining now that COVID-19 restrictions are easing in Ontario. (Berkeley North)

Many casual workers have left the industry. They depend on tips to bolster wages, and there aren't so many tips in the takeout business.

Webber is grateful he has been able to keep a small core of staff working in both the front and back. But he fully expects that he, along with his general manager, Alex Figliloa, will be waiting tables when they reopen.

When Berkeley North first opened, not one item was available for takeout. Then COVID hit, restaurants were shut down, and within one week, it had a takeout menu.

"We were very much a dining-in experience, and to be honest, we have to return to that to survive, but my staff has been extraordinary in shifting focus," said Webber.

Creating new takeout items, collaborating with the Dundurn Market to supply sauces, bread, pasta and the components to make a meal, engaging customers on Instagram — the demand for fresh ideas was relentless.  

"We worked hard every day to get better, rather than just sit in the sadness of it," said Webber.

Wage and rent subsidies helped

During the dark days, an understanding landlord and the various wage and rent subsidies and loan programs helped pay the fixed costs to keep Berkeley North open, for which Webber is thankful. But they come with their own demands, including a long list of government forms to fill out each month.

That is another reason  Webber, like so many in the food industry, goes full speed from the time he wakes up to bedtime.

"And I have two kids under three at home. I have to tell you, my wife is a superhero."

Webber still finds a lot to be grateful for: Berkeley North has a patio, when so many restaurants don't, Hamilton's Downtown BIA has purchased outdoor tables and chairs for the restaurants on King William, and he's working again with Russ Ohrt of Backyard Harvest in creating meals with local produce.

"I do feel very positive when we reopen that it will be great and busy," said Webber. "I just really hope that our province, our country, our world can move forward, get better, and not have to suffer any more lockdowns."

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