We’ll see you in there.
Connect to customize your food & drink discovery.
After more than a year of COVID-induced closures, summer 2021 has brought with it the long-awaited reopening of Ontario’s restaurants. Still, what should be a euphoric moment has, for many places, been fraught with obstacles. Uncertain times and what might be the world’s longest restaurant shutdown, according to a BBC report, has led to labour shortages in the hospitality sector and headaches for restaurant owners and managers.
Plug into social media and it’s clear that the city’s restaurants are understaffed. From chain spots and catering companies to local favourites like Rob Rossi’s Giulietta, restaurateur Jen Agg’s restaurants, the Alo Food Group, Reyna, La Palma, and more, a surfeit of local eateries is currently hiring for both front- and back-of-house.
David Neinstein, owner of Barque Smokehouse.
"Talk about a shake-up," says David Neinstein, owner of Barque Smokehouse on Roncesvalles Avenue. "Pre-COVID, we had 42 mostly full-time employees. We have one location we ran seven days a week, two services a day." According to Neinstein, the restaurant is "currently operating one patio, four nights a week and we have two patios that could be operating."
This past spring, with reopening on the horizon, Barque management gave all previous employees the opportunity to return to work at the restaurant. They then "went to the market," says Neinstein. "We tried to go to the job boards, Facebook groups, anywhere you could post, put a sign in the window… This is definitely a volume problem. We're not seeing a lot of applicants at all."
Due to closures, insufficient government support and rising expenses, the restaurant industry is one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. "Nearly half (45%) of all foodservice businesses have been consistently losing money for more than a year," according to survey data from industry group Restaurants Canada.
As a result of the uncertainty, many hospitality workers have left the industry to pursue other interests and career paths. According to Restaurants Canada, in May 2021, there were "437,500 fewer people working in the foodservice sector than there were in February 2020."
Now, restaurants are struggling to meet demand. Many have been slow to open due to gaps in staffing. Others have chosen not to open for both patio and indoor dining until a full team has been hired and properly trained. "We definitely had not experienced this in the past," says Neinstein. "This is a new phenomenon. We're currently operating one patio… We're not looking at indoor dining yet. We don't have staff for it."
"Hiring in general right now is tough," says Jan Stoeckmann, general manager of Oretta. "It's very different from pre-pandemic days where everybody was looking for a job." Oretta currently has enough staff to operate a patio and open for indoor dining, yet "more people would help."
For Stoeckmann, the fact that many people have left the industry means that new applicants lack the experience he looks for in candidates. “I’d rather hire people where I know they have some experience because I know they will do the work of two people with no experience,” he says. The glut of jobs has also made it harder to find the right people. “There are so many opportunities out there that servers and bartenders can choose from a bigger pool of available jobs.”
So, what happens next? At Marben, the pandemic inspired the team to rethink the way hospitality workers are compensated. In September 2020, the restaurant “eliminated tipping in the building,” says manager Karen Davidson. “Just like any other industry, we charge appropriately for our goods and services,” says executive chef Chris Locke, adding that the new structure allows employees “to operate as professionals and be compensated as professionals and have support in their career... It offers stability, reliability and also makes them feel like they are valued by the business, valued by the restaurant, and they’re not compensated by the whim of guests and how they’re feeling that particular day.”
Chris Locke, Marben executive chef.
David Neinstein, of Barque, echoes the sentiment. “[W]e have to be competitive with our compensation,” he says. “The first thing we did last year as soon as we reopened from the initial lockdown is that we gave everyone more money.” The restaurant also “hired an inclusivity specialist to help give us an audit on how we’re hiring.” With the audit came suggestions for how to be more open and inclusive and attract a more diverse group of applicants. “We’ve widened our scope to make sure that we’re putting out the call to hires in as many places as possible to make sure that people with different backgrounds and experiences can apply and give us a more diverse playing field,” says Neinstein.
As with everything post-pandemic, recovery for restaurants will take time. During that time, perhaps some desperately-needed changes -- from better pay to benefits and safer, more inclusive workspaces -- may finally find a stronger foothold in the industry. “Overall, it is a tough time for the entire industry right now,” says Steockmann. “But I think that the light at the end of the tunnel is there.”
“Hospitality is a labour of love,” says Neinstein. “Hopefully, a new set of people who love it as much as us will soon come forward.”