RestoBiz spoke to four owners and operators about the continued effect of the pandemic on labour
21 months into the COVID-19 pandemic and foodservice operators are far from out of the woods. Whereas the first year of the pandemic was characterized by panic, shutdowns, layoffs, and other evolving measures, staffing challenges have been a major roadblock in 2021.
Across the province of Ontario and the country, operators have faced difficulties in hiring and retaining the labour force necessary to handle the extensive reopening of indoor dining, resurgent dining traffic, and increased digitized operations.
The industry continued to innovate remarkably, whether that is by broadening operations or shifting their use of digital tools or boosting technological integration. But those staffing challenges have proven a stubborn impediment to that progress.
RestoBiz spoke to four varied foodservice operators in Ontario, from restaurant and coffee shop owners to hospitality operations management, about how they have tackled the issue.
Much has been made of the staffing challenges in foodservice since the spring. How has your lived experience of that been?
Craig Burgess, owner of Wacky Wings eatery in Sault Ste. Marie:
I think things like CERB kept some people from applying for jobs. Finding employees is certainly our biggest challenge right now. We have seven locations and all have had long spells of being unable to open fully because we’re short-staffed. It’s that bad. We can’t fill all the sections on any given day for any of our locations, other than the odd time where the stars align. That’s a real challenge and it really limits your ability to maximize yourselves. There was a long period when people were out of work and their jobs are displaced. When you tried to fire back up and turn everything back on after lockdown, the staff was reduced and the margins were thinner. Then you repeat that process two, three, four times and you lose more stability each time. That has definitely created huge challenges.
Mark Reader, general manager of operations at Antrim Truck Stop in Arnprior:
We’re quite unique as a foodservice operation, being a truck stop. Our main footfall is our restaurant, for which we’ve created a good name. We have a fantastic set of staff and ownership and a core set of workers who have been with us through thick and thin. Our struggle has been hiring to replace those workers – mostly in the kitchen rather than the front – who have left the industry or the business, maybe the ones who have taken the government payouts and not come back. That’s getting better now but unfortunately, it’s coming months too late after the busy summer, when we were easily two people down. We’ve not reduced our hours for cooks, but we have been limited in what we can do. We have to fit our operations to the number of cooks we’ve had at any one time. That pushes you into longer lineups, longer waits for the customers, and more relentless days for the cooks. But the biggest thing is you don’t want to let anyone down, even if you have to make some hard decisions.
How have you looked to remain attractive to workers to ease those staffing challenges?
We’re trying everything. In some cases, we’ve increased the rates of pay but even that doesn’t always help because turnover is at such an alarming rate, we’ve never seen it like we’re seeing right now. The pay problem is a big one; in the kitchens, the rates of pay are not the greatest, especially when you factor in the tips that are made in front of house. I personally think there’s a big problem with the tipping culture in Canada, where pretty much all the tips go to the servers and ignore the dishwashers, the cooks, and the integral people in the kitchen. That can create staffing challenges,not ot mention problems in the kitchen and it’s an inherent issue in the industry, but it’s a difficult one to address because if you talk to your servers about sharing some of their tips, you can create a very difficult situation. But maybe the pandemic has levelled that out: when restaurants reopened after the first long lockdown [in 2020], the takeout model meant reduced tips for many.
Troy Brett, owner of Mochaberry Coffee Co. in Orangeville:
For a start, we’re having to pay 10 or 15 per cent more for starting wages, which were already above minimum wage. Also, to get decent talent, we’ve had to do probably three times as many interviews as before and use different tools to find people. We hired six or seven people in early fall – I was overstaffing because I know people are going to leave or not work out because they have different skillsets. I’d say at least 75 per cent of the staff I just hired have never worked in foodservice before, they’re transitioning from other work. It’s interesting training somebody green. It’s different skillsets, different people, for sure. Are they going to stick around as long? We hope we maintain a welcoming, inviting, fun environment where they stick around for longer. You also have to change with the times, so I’ve created different types of positions – people helping on both the admin side and the barista side, I’ve created two or three of those types of positions. Another person’s going to do local deliveries of freshly roasted coffee and work as a barista. You can’t be stuck in your box – what can you do to make your business better-suited for the future?
Camille Pilon, owner of No Forks Given catering in Ottawa:
Being a new restaurant that only opened a permanent fixed location in April 2021, we were confronted with staffing challenges in finding employees that are just as versatile as the company. We were very fortunate to find a handful of individuals who were very willing to both work in front of house and also in the kitchen and be versatile. Our employees’ number one priority is their safety so they ask a lot of questions about how we will protect them and they require a lot of support and understanding because everything is still evolving. Take the vaccine passport situation, which exposed them to new confrontation possibilities. We kept aware of what the rules and regulations were and consulted the whole team on how they felt they can do their job best within those regulations. Above all, it’s about building relationships with staff. Staff just want to feel trusted and respected and they are looking for a community. Allowing these interactions to happen is crucial to our development; we just open the conversation with all our team members.
What lessons have you learned in mitigating staffing challenges?
We installed several ghost kitchen brands we created and that is helping us to stabilize the operation and keep our team going. Even when we had to shut down and we were just in the takeout scenario, those extra sales would help us avoid layoffs. One thing we’re working on right now is integration. I think that’s going to be the biggest thing in takeout over the next couple of years. For one, having a digital dashboard lets us know how our team is doing. But these innovations allow you to do so much more. Once labour is stabilized, it’s going to make those restaurants that have embraced everything so much stronger.
One thing we were very fortunate with was that prior to the pandemic, we’d already been working on getting our online business up and running. When the pandemic hit, we basically pressed pause on the other facets of our business and totally focused on roasting for online and delivery. If anyone from my team wanted to work, there was tons of work for them; we roasted and packed and shipped coffee all day long, seven days a week. We tried to stay open on the retail side of the business at the beginning but there was no real custom for a while and nobody really wanted to work in that sort of situation early in the pandemic when the health side hadn’t really been sorted out. It’s about being flexible – we closed for about five weeks and focused on the online stuff and the team felt a lot safer. We were also always active on social media whether we were closed or not and that marketing drive kept our staff busy and employed.
We found that because of supply chain and labour issues, it’s even more important for us to make the most of our manufacturing company and handle our own production. We’ve also had the pleasure to be developing a farm for the past year-and-a-half where we are kickstarting a project of growing our own produce. Not everyone has the opportunity to go into their own production of goods, but I think producing locally will be the next big innovation for restaurant owners considering the ever-changing margins of cost. Food is more costly, staffing is more costly, and wherever you can handle the cost is where you can get benefits. We feel we’ve created a multi-dimensional company that is, to a certain extent, self-sustainable.
Even before COVID-19, 95 per cent of complaints were communication-related. If something goes wrong in the kitchen or the dining room, it’s almost always communication that is the root cause. But that’s one thing we can control. The host role is so important in this environment, they are the mediator. We’ve had to create that role. The forward-thinking people have the most success; I’ve always said that proper planning and preparation prevent poor performance.
RestoBiz thanks Antrim Truck Stop, Mochaberry Coffee, No Forks Given, and Wacky Wings for telling their tales. These interviews were edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.