Skip to content

Restaurants still struggle to find staff despite better pay, working conditions

Despite the buoyancy the industry is feeling with restrictions lifted and patios opening in Ontario, staffing issues continue at restaurants.

Across the country they struggle to find enough staff and the right staff, especially for kitchen positions. In some cases in the Waterloo region, owners have had to close for a day or two because there aren’t enough staff to fully run the kitchen.

“It’s a big-time problem,” says Brian McCourt, culinary director at Ignite Group. “We’ve had to close Crowsfoot on Monday and Tuesday due to staffing issues. Graffiti Market is a revolving door of cooks.”

In downtown Kitchener and Guelph, Crafty Ramen owner Jared Ferrall says things are stable — right now — but there’s a paucity of qualified cooks.

“When we are looking for staff, we definitely get a lot fewer applications, especially for kitchen positions,” Ferrall says.

Not many restaurant owners are feeling optimistic about the employment landscape; its forced them to tweak operations, has made longer-term planning difficult, and can complicate just staying open for advertised hours.

Where did all the cooks go?

At 13 Food and Beverage in Cambridge, co-owner Matt Rolleman says the core team in the kitchen is solid, though staffing shortages are problematic.

“It’s the few extra pieces that you need to run a busy restaurant that have been really hard to find, and it has mainly been kitchen driven,” he says, adding when things are tight he’s been forced to jump on the line and help with the cooking.

Rolleman says it’s been hard to find people to apply for jobs and come for interviews at the 160-seat restaurant with a street-patio for 60 guests.

“A lot of people left working in kitchens during COVID, and I don’t know if they want to come back necessarily,” he says.

While they are doing their best to understand the complexity of the situation, experienced restaurateurs seem at a loss. That includes McCourt, a veteran of the local food scene.

Brian McCourt, culinary director at Ignite Group, says they’ve had to close one restaurant on Mondays and Tuesdays due to staffing issues and another restaurant has ‘a revolving door of cooks.’ (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

“I don’t understand where all the cooks went. It’s crazy, and it’s forcing our core teams to work extra hours and run the risk of burnout,” he said.

At Hemlock Burger Barn, owner Josh Perovic says he can get applicants to come into the restaurant, but he can’t be sure they will stay. He describes it as an employee’s market, adding that he is invested in trying to offer attractive working conditions.

“I have people getting paid $22 an hour and getting close to $6 an hour cash and tips. We give free staff meals while you’re working and a free staff meal to take home. I also give a free gym membership to all my employees ,” Perovic says.

He says the incentives are there to work at Hemlock, a restaurant near the St. Jacobs Market. “But anyone who wants a job gets their pick out there,” he adds. “That’s good for them. But it’s very difficult for me as a smaller business, rocked hard by COVID, to compete.”

The pandemic has led to some inward reflection by the industry, but solutions are still a way off, say owners such as Rolleman.

Hemlock Burger Barn owner Josh Perovic says he’s offering incentives to keep people in the job, like free meals and even gym memberships. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

“The restaurant industry is flawed, there’s no question about it, with front of house tips and back of house tip sharing,” says Rolleman. “The kitchen jobs are tough jobs, and I think as an industry there’s a flaw there. People talk about this all the time.”

Conversations around how to correct the issue often lead to suggestions of shorter hours, living wages and cutting out tips altogether.

Matt Rolleman, of 13 Food and Beverage in Cambridge, says when staffing has been really tight, he’s been forced to jump on the line and help with the cooking. (Submitted by Matt Rolleman)

The reality is, restaurants operate between two opposing forces: many customers express that they want to see higher pay for frontline workers like cooks, yet many more look for inexpensive food.

To help get the former, that $15 burger would have to jump to $22 or more – a tough sell, especially in a period of stagflation and straitened discretionary spending, notes Rolleman.

“Are people ready to pay that? I don’t think they are. The industry is in a tough spot,” he says.

“I’m not sure what the right answer is.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.