Ontario restaurants

What next for Ontario restaurants at full capacity?

By Tom Nightingale

The rollercoaster that Ontario restaurants have been on throughout the last two years makes Canada’s Wonderland look tame by comparison.

Operators and staff have had to get used to drastic shifts to how they can operate, often at short notice, on numerous occasions throughout the pandemic. The latest of those came earlier this week when Ontario announced that restaurants and other foodservice establishments can reopen at full capacity starting on February 17.

Broadly speaking, of course, that is good news. While the Ontarian weather can be unpredictable, there should be just a few weeks of seriously cold weather left. Ahead lies the promise of a milder season and, hopefully, a sustained period of full-capacity operations leading into a potentially highly profitable summer.

RELATED: Indoor dining is back, and patrons are hungry

Tony Elenis, a leading vocal advocate for Ontario restaurants as the President and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel, and Motel Association (ORHMA), tells RestoBiz that the association desperately hopes this latest step forward represents Canadian restaurants’ exit from the pains of Omicron.

“One thing we have seen about this industry over the last 22 months is that it has proven to be adaptable and resilient,” Elenis says. “The industry has embraced so many new protocols and trends in their operations.

“But what it really needs for sustained success is a 100-per-cent capacity opening. It is very tough to float dollars to the bottom line at 50 per cent capacity, you need that extra space that the industry has not had consistently.”

Elenis believes the latest developments lay the path for the industry to get back on its feet. As always, though, patience and adjustment will be needed.

How do you solve a problem like labour?

Reopening at full capacity is a huge opportunity for the sector, but it also comes with plenty of its own challenges. Not least is the fact that Ontario restaurants – like so many businesses in so many industries in so many jurisdictions in recent months – have been facing an ongoing labour struggle.

The staffing side is a big concern, Elenis admits. “If restaurants think they have workforce issues now, it’s going to be a nightmare in the future if more is not done.”

Those struggles are dovetailing with the fact that there are more expenses for restaurants now than before the pandemic, from the price of cleaning and health and safety measures to the need to offset soaring food costs and everything in between. Labour was an issue before COVID-19 but the pandemic has made it significantly more severe.

Some of the workforce issues are demographical. The baby boomer generation is retiring and there are fewer youth in the worker pool now than in decades past – not just for hospitality, but in many industries. Many of the workforce have also typically been immigrants, Elenis notes. That creates its own problems.

“The immigration policies, especially in metro areas like the GTA, are not friendly at this point when it comes to pushing more employees into Canada and into our industry,” laments Elenis. He explains that ORHMA has shifted its advocating efforts primarily to focus on the workforce issue, starting with driving immigration amendments that are friendlier to the industry.

Ultimately, though, the key lies in ensuring that existing and potential future foodservice workers are attracted to the industry. Restaurants have done what they can, raising pay within their capabilities and in many cases offering other perks like benefits and free meals, as well as focusing on improving the workplace culture. But a longer-term vision is needed.

“We as an industry need to do a better job of inspiring the youth of today to understand that this industry is a career industry and educating them on the different paths that are available within,” adds Elenis. “If employees are patient, there are opportunities to move into management jobs.”

ORHMA believes the key may lie in reassessing the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) to inspire youth to go right into trade jobs from school. Another key part of that, one which plays into the immigration issue too, is bringing Ontario in line with other provinces by defining the job of cook as a skilled position under the PNP.

“Ontario is losing international students that are coming here and taking courses at hospitality schools to other provinces that already have that position as skilled,” Elenis continues. “Many of those people’s end goal is to become permanent citizens. Obtaining a job in a skilled occupation gets you more points towards that. It is crucial to not lose those students that are already interested in working in our industry in Ontario elsewhere.”

Certainly, halting the industry’s typically high rate of turnover is vital, not just for cutting the costs of rehiring and training but for facilitating a more profitable and sustainable Canadian foodservice industry. In Elenis’ words, employee satisfaction must be “the number one priority.”

“Vast majority” will abandon proof of vaccination

It’s not just a move back to full capacity that awaits Ontario restaurants.

At the same time as announcing the lifting of that restriction, the provincial government confirmed that it will be scrapping its mandatory proof-of-vaccination system for businesses including restaurants and hospitality establishments from March 1, unless the coronavirus situation worsens.

Elenis believes “the vast majority” of restaurants will abandon the proof-of-vaccination process, noting it served its purpose.

“The vast majority in the industry adopted it not only because it was mandated but also because it was a tool to raise consumer confidence,” he notes. “But I would say that just about everyone in the industry found it inconvenient.” Initially (and, in some cases, consistently), there has been pushback from some customers, and it has also created extra tasks for workers in a high-pressure time.

However, while many will drop it, Elenis suggests the policy may still be found in some places.

“What the customer tells us, that’s what we end up doing – most trends are started by the consumer. Perhaps you have an older crowd who might be a bit cautious, and so you might do it later than March 1. It depends on your customer base and how the overall industry moves along.” He adds there may also be some value in retaining the QR code for entry as a distinguishing feature in a bid to attract customers who feel the need for that extra layer of security.

Refurbishing foodservice’s image

There is thought to be a great deal of diner demand waiting in the wings. Some consumers may wait until spring, giving them more time to get used to the idea of dining out in full-capacity restaurants again, with the added appeal and leeway of outdoor dining in warmer weather. But the long-term trend is expected to be a robust rebound.

Ontario restaurants will be eager to capitalize.

RELATED: 3 ways restaurants can navigate pandemic consumer behaviour

One more impediment needs addressing, though.

Much of the last 22 months has been spent telling consumers to stay home and that restaurants – the interiors of them, anyway – are not the safest place to be. All of the restrictions and the current lockdowns have brought an “unfair” perception of the industry, says Elenis. He is calling on public officials to change that narrative.

“It is vital that the government starts promoting Ontario restaurants as safe places to visit and to dine in,” he concludes. “We have very few outbreaks or casualties compared with even home gatherings. The industry deserves for all three levels of government and public health on all levels to come out with a narrative that supports consumer confidence.”