Making the Most of a Shrinking Labour Force


Volume 48,  Issue 1

Written By:  Shane Schick

He’s better known as a film director than a restaurateur, which may be why Uwe Boll’s search for foodservice talent sounds like something out of a horror movie.

The director of BloodRayne and House of the Dead plans to open Bauhaus Restaurant, specializing in German cuisine, in Vancouver this month, and in preparation he and his associates began making the rounds at the competition last year. That’s when he began to notice a strange pattern: a bartender who seemed to be following him wherever he went, job-hopping as Boll and his friends were bar-hopping. “It was the same guy — three times within three months within three different restaurants,” he says. “He would approach us and say, ‘I want to work for you.’ Then he would start giving us free drinks. That’s exactly the kind of guy I don’t want in my restaurant.”

The Challenges
Dealing with eager candidates flocking to get hired isn’t a problem for many restaurant operators. In fact, the problem is quite the opposite. According to a survey published by Toronto-based Restaurants Canada this past November, a shortage of skilled labour had a negative impact on nearly four in 10 operators — the highest share since Restaurants Canada began the research. In fact, labour costs were second only to food costs.

“What’s happened is the 15-to-24 age group demographic has reached its peak and is in decline,” explains Joyce Reynolds, EVP at Restaurants Canada, who describes the shortage as a “crisis,” which plays out in various ways across provinces. “It’s very hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution when the challenges differ so dramatically from one place to the next.”

Just three years ago, Statistics Canada and the Canadian Tourism Human Resource Council, both based in Ottawa, released a survey that projected a shortage of nearly 35,000 restaurant employees by this year, and close to 137,000 within the next 15 years.

Although some major urban centres have plenty of potential hires, the competition can be tough, says Cindy Simpson, EVP of Imago Restaurants in Toronto, which operates The Duke Pubs chain. “I don’t think the shortages in Toronto are as severe as [those in Western Canada] are experiencing,” she says. On the other hand, there’s the issue of keeping people for longer than a few years or even a season. Although restaurants employ many people, the job can be transitory, especially for fickle millennials, who Simpson says aren’t the entitled group some make them out to be. “You see this with every generation,” she says. Either way, recruiting is an ongoing job.

It’s not just a case of filling positions with a warm body, says Mike Yasinski, president of Hudson’s Canadian Tap House in Edmonton. “It’s obviously a war for talent, but you want quality, properly trained people who want to make a career out of the hospitality industry,” he says. “That’s true from the managerial ranks right through to the first-time job or the waitress or the bartender. We’re all competing for the hospitality gene.”

But, some operators continue to be drawn to people who may lack that gene, even for some senior positions. “You wouldn’t believe how many résumés I got from Indian chefs, Chinese chefs, who all thought they could pull off German cuisine without a problem,” Boll says, adding that it’s no easier with front-of-the-house staff. “Before we even talk about anything else, some waiters start talking about the tips, whether it will be a tip pool or individual tips. Or they only want to work on Friday, or for that particular table.”
Older workers may require an equal level of attention. As baby boomers retire, they want their voices to be heard and their experience respected, says Alexis Davis, director of Talent and Culture at Toronto-based Chase Hospitality Group, which operates The Chase and Little Fin among other restaurants.

The Opportunities
Despite the perennial quest for good people, restaurant operators are not about to give up, and there are many ways in which the demand for labour can spur good things within their businesses.

Yasinski says Hudson’s has recognized the labour shortage forces everyone at his company to improve the way they manage staff and work collectively as a team. Otherwise there’s no way to attract the people you want. “We’re of the opinion that we’re a great place to work and have our eyes wide open that people choose for some of these jobs [to be] transitional jobs in their life,” he says. “We want them to come into our company, work for two, three or five years, and, at the end of that tenure, feel they have left the company a better person. They’ll have made new friends, gotten new skills and great memories.” Customers may end up feeling the benefit of that culture when they’re being served.

Technology is also helping. There are apps to make reservations and portable debit- and credit-card readers, and back-office technologies involving accounting and other administrative tasks help restaurant staff be more efficient. “Our people are spending more time with customers as opposed to punching numbers in calculators or writing in ledger books,” Imago’s Simpson explains. Some technologies may even become a greater part of the customer experience, but probably within limits. “People don’t want to feel processed,” she adds. “They want to feel part of the human world.”

At Chase, management addresses the labour issue from the get-go. The firm’s referral program has brought in a number of candidates, perhaps in part because of an incentive: dinner for two for those who bring forward potential hires. “In the past few months, we’ve turned a corner on [finding good people],” says Davis. “The applicants are coming in, and they’ve got good experience.”

And, although Boll tends to prefer candidates with strong credentials in the kitchen, he says talent-starved restaurants may want to consider letting more staff learn on the job. “The European system with apprenticeships is the way to go,” he confides. “The culinary school system in Canada — it’s good to have, but it shouldn’t be everything. To learn from an exceptional cook in a restaurant for two or three years will bring you further ahead in some cases than a culinary school.” And, it doesn’t hurt that those rookie enthusiasts are often the ones who work the hardest, proving their worth as other staff come and go.

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