Living Wages are the Gorilla in the Room

Illustration by Dasha Zolata

Recently I had the pleasure of listening to The Educators episode of Foodservice and Hospitality’s Table Talk podcast, a discussion between editor/publisher Rosanna Caira and five hospitality educators about the effects of the global pandemic and what the future might hold for the industry. I was quite taken with the discussion about the state of the industry. It seems to me that the verdict was unanimous, that our business model is indeed broken. To my mind, this is the 800-pound gorilla in the room that no one wants to talk about. I was encouraged to hear that a silver lining in the COVID-19 cloud might be an impetus for some much-needed change.

Rudi Fischbacher, associate dean, Faculty of Business, Humber College, spoke about grads leaving the industry early and the low barriers to entry in opening a restaurant. Christine Walker, director of Academics, Chef School and Industry Related Research at George Brown College, spoke about the warped expectations of the consumers “value-driven” proposition model and the ongoing toxic kitchen-culture problems. Bruce McAdams, associate professor, School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management, University of Guelph, has long spoken and written about labour attraction and retention issues, the transient nature of our labour force and how to mitigate those issues. Never mind the ludicrous commercial rents and municipal taxes that are extracted from restaurateurs in Toronto. Undoubtedly, the restaurant business model is broken. It’s never been an easy thing to say about one’s own industry, especially as a teacher.

I was a student in the HAFA program at the University of Guelph for the second half of the ‘70s and it was then I started to read F&H and attended my first CRFA/HostEx restaurant shows. Labour has always been at the very top of every survey ever conducted about the problems facing restaurateurs. That’s not new. Long hours and low pay — there has been much ink spilled on these issues.

There have been many thoughtful and creative ideas and best practices developed to attract, retain and engage our teams over the years. Internal marketing, service culture, the service-profit chain — these are all inspirational and high-minded concepts. The fact that it’s almost 50 years later and we’re still talking about the very same issues means only one thing — it’s not working. Many of these ideas and best practices could work. They should work. But they won’t work. They’ll never work until we pay our staff a living wage. It’s that simple. All of the “best practices” have never amounted to anything more than re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The labour issue has stubbornly remained atop all those lists all these years for a reason. If we truly want to fully engage our teams, we have to take the money issue off the table. If I need two full-time jobs to pay for rent and food, all of your engagement and retention efforts will appear disingenuous, at best. Sadly, we’re hobbled by a legislated and immoral minimum wage that forces people below the poverty line.

What all of this really means is that, when we finally decide to pay our staff a living wage, obviously, the price of going to a restaurant will have to increase and likely by 20 or 30 per cent. By extension, this could well mean fewer restaurants. So be it. Fischbacher said, “the barriers to entry are too low” and he’s right. According to Walker, the public has a distorted concept of the true cost of food and she’s right, too. It should go without saying that the path forward includes realizing that tipping and paying a living wage are mutually exclusive concepts. The public will react predictably when forced to pay closer to the true cost. It’s called sticker shock. Eventually they’ll come back.

Until we pay a living wage, we will never have a fully engaged staff — they simply can’t afford it. Until we pay a living wage, the restaurant business model will remain broken. Until we pay a living wage, you can expect to see a steady stream of articles and journals, speeches and surveys devoted to the latest best practices of exactly how, why and where you should put those deck chairs. Seen any icebergs?

After more than 25 years of owning and operating restaurants both here and abroad, Andy Hickl-Szabo joined the faculty of the School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at George Brown College in 2007.

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