Kitchener-Waterloo

Help wanted, though it's hard to find for an 'unstable' restaurant industry: Andrew Coppolino

Despite the move to a new stage of re-opening, or perhaps because of it, many local food businesses have experienced difficulty in filling out their staffing ranks, writes food columnist Andrew Coppolino.

Even with capacity at restaurants increased for indoor dining, uncertainty remains in industry

A Help Wanted sign.
Despite the move to a new stage of re-opening, or perhaps because of it, many local food businesses have experienced difficulty in filling out their staffing ranks. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Despite the move to a new stage of re-opening, or perhaps because of it, many local food businesses have experienced difficulty in filling out their staffing ranks.

Even with capacity at restaurants increased for indoor dining, uncertainty remains in the industry.

"Everyone is looking for help. With the pandemic, anybody that was in the industry panicked and had to find jobs elsewhere. And they're not going to come back to this industry because it's unstable right now," according to Jammie Monk, executive chef at Puddicombe House in New Hamburg.

At Little Mushroom in Cambridge, and with new operations at Descendants Beer and Beverage Co. in Kitchener, owner Stephanie Soulis says lockdowns are "a sour taste" for employees seeking that stability.

"Our last sous chef left to work in a long-term care [home] kitchen because it was steady no matter what," said Soulis who pays staff a higher-than-standard wage for the industry.

The topsy-turvey nature of the industry continues to see people leave and not return, she said, adding one of her cooks left the industry to become a carpenter and her former front-of-house manager is in the concrete business now.

"I hired an HR person, partly to help with recruiting, but also to take some things off my plate so I can help in the kitchen," Soulis said.

A sign outside La Reina in Guelph asks for people to apply to work at the restaurant. Many Canadian restaurants say they are finding it difficult to find help because the industry is so uncertain. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Many restaurant jobs lost due to the pandemic

Youth unemployment in Canada was suspected to be as high as 20 per cent this past spring, according to Statistics Canada. In the 15-24 age demographic — many of whom are traditionally employed in the food and beverage sector — over 100,000 jobs were lost due to pandemic restrictions

When staffing is relatively settled, good fortune has played a role as much as anything.

Jay Taylor at Morty's in Waterloo says staff retention has been good, but the past 18 months have been tough for staffing.

"We've been able to hire a few people and have been lucky that we have been able to retain almost all of our long-term staff. We continue to add to our staff as much as possible. It is very tough," Taylor said.

At Hemlock Burger Barn, Josh Perovic calls the circumstances "crazy."

"It's tough getting staff right now. You could have five people send you a resume and be ready for interviews and maybe one or two of them even show up," he said.

Many say CERB not the issue

Anecdotes echo throughout the industry that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) played a role in keeping restaurant staff at home. It's a polarizing issue.

Both Monk and Jody Palubiski, managing director of the Charcoal Group, said that is not the case as far as they can see.

Monk said, "everybody said [lack of hires] was because of the CERB. But no, it's that people need stability and to have a full-time job and know that it's going to be there tomorrow."

Neither has it been a factor for Soulis of Little Mushroom.

"I don't think CERB has been a deterrent for most. Good people drawn to the industry are hard workers who like to keep busy. They haven't been sitting around collecting assistance," she said.

As an aside, Soulis hopes federal wage relief continues a bit longer so food operations can get back on their feet.

"There are still a lot of restrictions keeping us from making pre-pandemic revenues, and lots of extra costs around COVID-19 safety for staff and clients, and around packaging and disinfecting, and so on, that are still a burden."

The experience with re-opening — and opening a new downtown Toronto location — has in fact been positive for Beertown, according to Palubiski. He says the popular beer-forward restaurant brand advertised for 14 positions in Toronto and filled them all almost immediately.

Yet hiring can reveal a tension in employer-employee relations. At odds with the current industry practice of working your way up in the kitchen are applicants making demands for remuneration and benefits.

"People want more money. I get that," Monk said. "But this industry was built on you working your way up. Now, they want it right off the bat. It's a tough situation. You have to pay the money to get the good workers, but it's expensive running a restaurant. Food costs are high. Equipment costs are high."

The issue sometimes ends up being difficult, according to Perovic at Hemlock, who has had to let people go for being "lazy," he says.

"People think they have me over a barrel. They think, well, you need bodies here, so I'm just going to do the bare minimum. We need bodies for sure, but we need good ones."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino is author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press). He is the 2022 Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewcoppolino.

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