Employees are leaving food service jobs just as things reopen

Restaurants in Waterloo Region are facing a staffing challenge as Ontario startts to plan for patios and dining rooms to re-open, writes food columnist Andrew Coppolino.
Grant Holdbrook's change in family status led him to change his outlook about a long-term career in the restaurant industry, and go back to school. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

It is estimated that more than 110,000 accommodation and food service jobs have been lost in Ontario because of the pandemic.

Waterloo Region is no exception to that statistic, but food service owners and managers are anticipating that some laid-off employees will be returning to their jobs when patios and dining rooms can re-open.

However, some food service employees have decided that job security is risky. The pandemic has prompted them to make a career change and exit from a demanding role that traditionally pays lower wages.

Brittain Brown, president of Givex, a restaurant technology company, says some restaurant staff will find jobs in other parts of the industry. 

"There are definitely people who are establishing if they are going to take a different line of work," Brown said. "One of those different lines could very well be as a delivery driver versus a server. That's the kind of thing people might think of more."   

COVID layoff '180-ed me'

Having spent his adult life in food service, starting as a busboy at Toronto's Old Spaghetti Factory, Matteo Giordano was a waiter and front-of-house manager with a small restaurant group in Waterloo and Cambridge.

For him, Covid-19 meant he was laid off in March 2020, making caring for his young family difficult.

"When the pandemic hit and all work stopped, my entire income essentially stopped," said Giordano. "It totally 180-ed me."

Giordano is now working outside of the hospitality industry and finds blending work with family more manageable. "This is a total night-and-day [change] of what it once was," he said. "The work-life balance is a lot easier to maintain."

He adds that the shutdown was such that with restaurants going out of business, it wasn't an option for him to look for work within the industry.

According to Laura Umbrio, general manager of Waterloo's Proof Kitchen and Lounge, a few employees have moved on to other jobs, and some full-time employees might only return part-time.

"I certainly understand that, but I also fear it might cause an issue of labour shortage when we do open up," Umbrio said in an email.   

Focus shift alters staff need

A popular food take-away and culinary teaching business, The Culinary Studio, has recently relocated from their Kitchener venue to a location in Waterloo and re-routed their business entirely to online cooking instruction. 

They have left the business of serving food to the general public, says co-owner Kirstie Herbstreit.

"This change was driven by the pandemic, 100 per cent," said Herbstreit, co-owner of The Culinary Studio with Jody O'Malley. "The feedback we get is that people enjoy learning cooking techniques in their own homes."

Skilled trades that support food and beverage venues have felt the impact, too.

Peter Dedes, an HVAC/R and natural-gas technician, has left the business after years installing and servicing a wide range of kitchen cooling and cooking equipment locally.

"In my current position, I won't be fully focussed on the hospitality industry any longer. I'm going to miss it," Dedes said.

Reeghan Peister graduated from Conestoga College School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts and has been a cook his entire adult life. Until the pandemic changed his outlook. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Former TWH Social chef Grant Holdbrook became a father in May of 2020. He says that during the pandemic, he made the decision to change careers.

"I was able spend a lot of time at home with the family. I weighed my options for what the long term goal with cooking was, and it was tough to figure out what was at the end of the tunnel," said Holdbrook. "I wanted to achieve more financial security and more flexible scheduling." 

Holdbrook is currently in school training in the HVAC/R trade.

Some cooks and food-and-beverage veterans have indicated they might choose to work in a restaurant as a side hustle or as a second and occasional job.

Reeghan Peister graduated from Conestoga College School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts and has been a cook his entire adult life, most recently with a large hospitality group based in Cambridge.

He has left that job working day-to-day in catering and says Covid-19 was the catalyst in his decision making.

"Just before the pandemic, I was looking at a five-year plan," Peister said. "I'm 35 years old, and was thinking what can I transition to out of this gruelling industry but still use my skills?"

It wasn't long after that the decision was a much easier one, according to Peister. "As soon as the pandemic hit and we were six or seven months in, I knew there was no return."

Peister re-configured and renovated his Kitchener home's basement into a bakery, bought a professional deck oven and got the required certification. He calls his new business Tough as They Crumb, a bread-by-subscription bakery. 

Comeback conundrum

Will these former restaurant workers return to the industry? Giordano says it doesn't make sense for him, practically, at this moment.

"With the restrictions that are in place in the current situation we're in right now, I would say no."

Peister, the new baker, doesn't see a return either, citing the hours away from family as a major issue in an industry that "you have to love, or you don't do it." 

"I've found a kind of peace where I'm at right now. I'm a real bread head, I'm not going to lie. I don't think I'll ever go back."


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.