Montreal restaurants keen to open patios, but staffing shortages may cause delays

Several restaurant owners say staff they lost earlier in the pandemic aren't willing to come back after abandoning the food service industry in favour of more stable jobs.

Many owners say staff they lost earlier in the pandemic aren't willing to come back

Michael Lafaille, owner of restaurant Kwizinn, said he's struggling to find staff so that he can open in time for the May 28 easing of restrictions. (Submitted by Michael Lafaille)

Michael Lafaille, owner of restaurant Kwizinn, wants to open his patio as soon as possible.

On Tuesday, the government announced that outdoor dining would be allowed as of May 28.

However, Lafaille doesn't think he'll be ready in time.

"The main issue here is to find new staff. I'm going crazy here putting ads everywhere," he told CBC's Daybreak

His restaurant in Verdun has a 22-seat patio, but before he can welcome back guests for the first time in months, he needs staff to cook, clean and serve them.

"The big problem is to get the CVs to come in," he said. "We want our people back and we're hoping to keep them for the long-term."

He said after many people lost their jobs during the first wave of the pandemic, some in the industry have moved on.

"I know cooks who became plumbers and who went into construction instead."

Lafaille said in order to retain staff, they need reassurance that more closures aren't on the way.

"People want to make sure it's going to be back for real."

Anthony Gentile Jr., owner of Cafe Gentile, said he has a lot to do in the next 10 days if he wants to open his patio in time. (CBC)

Anthony Gentile Jr., owner of Cafe Gentile, is also working on rebuilding his team. He said over the past year, he's had to lay off more than 30 employees.

"A lot of people in this industry have chosen other careers and I don't blame them," he told CBC.

Gentile said he's working hard to gear up for a May 28 reopening, but "​there's a lot to be done in 10 days."

"I'm getting the feeling of butterflies just to start seating people and taking their orders and talking to people. So it's gonna be great, it's going to be very stressful, but it's like riding a bike, we're going to get into it very quickly."

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Gentile said the most difficult part of the past year has been the uncertainty for his business. He wishes the communication from the government had been more clear.

"We're hearing it at the same time as everyone else is hearing it and it's kind of frustrating that we've been in the dark this whole time​," he said.

Some restaurants waiting for street closures

Another stumbling block for restaurant owners is the fact that many patios aren't even built yet. 

Lee-Ann Millaire-Lafleur, co-owner of Resto Palme on Ste-Catherine Street East, said she's waiting on the city before she can open her outdoor dining space.

"Our street is pedestrian, so we're also going to have to wait for the city to tell us when they're going to make it pedestrian so we can build our terrasses."

A stretch of Ste-Catherine Street East is closed each summer and many businesses convert their sidewalk spaces into patios. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Millaire-Lafleur said the opening is "a big source of stress right now" and she's not sure when she can start receiving customers again.

​"Obviously, we would have liked to have just a little more time to prepare."

The other problem? ​"We don't have enough staff." 

Like the others, Millaire-Lafleur has noticed that people have been abandoning the food service industry in favour of more stable prospects.

"The people we laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, some have found other jobs and other opportunities and are not willing to come back," she said.

Massimo Lecas, owner of restaurant Fiorellino, said right now carpenters are swamped with request to get patios setup. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC)

Massimo Lecas, owner of restaurant Fiorellino, said he believes many boroughs are "scrambling" to issue permits so businesses can get set up outside quickly.

Beyond that, the patios need to be built as well.

"Once you've got the permit, you've got to call your carpenter to come and install them and they are swamped," he said.

Still, Lecas is hopeful that he will be open by May 28, and since he's taking reservations, he expects to be booked up.

"Quebec is known for the joie de vivre. We've been caged for almost eight months," he said. "I think everybody will be out on that weekend and a lot of people will be there to support our industry which has gone through a very difficult period."

With files from Alison Northcott, Sharon Yonan Renold and Kwabena Oduro