The last 19 months have posed many of the sternest tests that foodservice has seen in recent memory — from tumbling sales in the spring and summer of 2020 as the pandemic gathered speed to the labour difficulties and rising food costs seen in recent months of 2021. The latest has been handling the introduction of a vaccine passport system in a delicate and effective fashion.
A recent report in the U.S. found that well over half (61 per cent) of surveyed restaurant operators said they do not agree with new vaccine regulations. There were fears over staffing, with 59 per cent of respondents stating concerns that employees would quit over the vaccine passport regulations and 53 per cent adding it may be harder to find new employees.
That worry, though, paled in comparison to the concerns over staff safety.
Almost as soon as mandatory proof of vaccination systems began to be stipulated by provinces, Canadian restaurants and industry associations and advocates were sounding the alarm about the potential backlash that restaurants and their staff may face. Everything from verbal abuse to sexual harassment and racism was feared from customers. In some places, according to reports from within the industry, those fears have been realized.
The Canadian Press reports that restaurant staff have been relaying stories of argumentative, angry, and confrontational customers. The job of enforcing the mandates largely falls to the already-beleaguered front-of-house staff, a workforce that is largely young and low-paid. For many, it has quickly become exhausting and stressful.
Camile Pilon, owner at No Forks Given catering, notes the situation has exposed her staff to new confrontation possibilities. “We have to do a lot of training on how to handle difficult situations,” she tells RestoBiz. “It’s a case of deciding what we are willing to accept in terms of behaviour from customers.”
Restaurants Canada found in a recent survey that more than half of operators say their employees have experienced hostile confrontations from people who are opposed to the new rules, 20 per cent of restaurants have lost staff, and more than 60 per cent need to hire more workers.
Craig Burgess, owner of multi-location restaurant Wacky Wings, tells RestoBiz that a key point that irate customers often seem to overlook is that restaurants are not choosing to enforce the system, merely complying with the legal requirements of the government directive.
“You have to recognize it’s a very difficult and sensitive scenario for us to be managing,” Burgess says. “It’s not something that most people in the restaurant industry are overly excited about – it’s something the politicians decide, and we’re just forced to follow.”
The point that restaurants are not the decision-makers in this scenario is echoed by Mark Reader, operations manager at Antrim Truck Stop, and he notes his business makes a point to emphasize that.
“We have big posters on the way into our restaurant and our bakery clearly attesting to the fact it is the government’s decision, not ours,” Reader tells RestoBiz. “Everything we do is to keep everyone safe. We’re not part of the political side of this process; we’re concerned with the safety side and with staying in business. Some restaurants may not enforce it but, in my view, doing that is risking pleasing the minority rather than the majority and we can’t afford to do that.”
Burgess adds that while he supports the theoretical idea and can recognize that it gives businesses and the industry a better chance to stay open, in practice, “it’s not something we really want to be doing”. There’s also the question of what happens to customers who are turned away. “They’re going to gather elsewhere, maybe somewhere less safe… There’s also the impact of the noisy section of the population who are very against it, many of them may boycott restaurants that are enforcing it. That might not be massive but it’s sizeable and I would guess it’s growing.”
In many cases, it should be noted, that point does seem to have sunk in with the public.
Troy Brett, owner at Mochaberry café in Orangeville, Ont., is one of the lucky operators who has not seen much trouble from customers around a vaccine passport. “I was very concerned about the team having to deal with irate customers, but I think customers know we’re just trying to do the right thing and just following the government mandates, it’s not our decision and we don’t necessarily want to be enforcing this.”
For many operators, though, the struggle has been real. Restaurants Canada insists restaurants should be compensated for the cost of enforcing vaccine passport mandates, which could, in turn, help them hire more workers and alleviate the labour crisis. It is also calling for capacity and distancing restrictions to be lifted now that vaccine requirements are being enforced.
For now, though, restaurants and their operators are largely left to their own devices when it comes to enforcing vaccine passports. Burgess, like many other restaurateurs, wants to make it clear to the dissenting voices that while the foodservice industry is on the front lines of enforcing the system, no restaurateur has decided to take this step off their own back.
“Ultimately, fighting restaurants over it is picking the battle with the wrong people,” he concludes. “And it’s just not really fair.”