From advanced tech to progressive approaches to workplace culture, operators are finding cutting-edge ways to address the labour shortage. For many operators, the end of pandemic restrictions hasn’t meant a joyful re-opening of restaurant doors. Instead, countless restaurants are now closing their doors early, periodically or completely — not because of government mandates, but because they don’t have the staff needed to keep them open.
According to Restaurants Canada’s Q2 2022 Outlook Survey, 95 per cent of foodservice operators are currently experiencing a staffing shortage, with 48 per cent of respondents reporting they’re experiencing a significant labour shortage. As a result, 70 per cent of table-service restaurants say they’ve reduced their hours of operation, while 45 per cent have shut-down their operations for one or multiple days of the week.
Other restaurants are attempting to maintain their operating hours to maximize profit, but this often means putting a strain on under-staffed teams. “Restaurants have incurred debt. They’ve had challenging sales with COVID, so then they can’t not take people; they can’t say no,” says Bruce McAdams, associate professor for the School of Hospitality, Food, and Tourism Management at the University of Guelph.
Indeed, the Restaurants Canada report found that 72 per cent of restaurants surveyed have increased the hours worked by owners and management-level staff. “The reaction has been to fill in however we can, whether it be owners and managers working behind the stove or taking tables, or stretching ourselves beyond our ability to provide a quality product,” adds McAdams.
Naturally, this all-hands-on-deck strategy isn’t sustainable for most operators. “It’s probably the biggest mistake a business can make,” says McAdams. “There’s a realization that quality has dropped across the country — as far as quality of food, quality of service — and that’s just because people are stretched thin.”
With staff facing burnout and no end in sight to the labour shortage, operators are re-evaluating what it takes to keep their businesses afloat. Some are looking to new technology to help their teams do more with less, while others are examining the reasons why people are leaving the restaurant industry and striving to create more attractive workplaces.
Turning to tech
Technology offers the potential to optimize workflows in both the front- and back-of-house, as well as simplify training of new team members. Todd Barclay, president, Casual Brands & Government Relations at Recipe Unlimited, says that tech-based solutions have helped many of the brand’s restaurants leverage current staff more efficiently.
“New technology, as it relates to various cooking equipment, is really the main place that we focus,” he explains. “It might be ovens or fryers that are more state-of-the-art that help our back-of-house staff to manage the flow and requirements of our guests and expedite some of these different initiatives so we can get food out faster.”
Barclay adds that many newer kitchen equipment models are more intuitive to operate, which can make it easier to get new hires up-to-speed. “When there’s turnover with employees and you’re trying to train them, new technology helps to lessen the time it takes for staff to learn how to actually make and create great food,” he says.
According to Barclay, Recipe Unlimited is also testing tech solutions in the front-of-house, such as server systems. “Some people call them robots, but we call them server systems, where they’re actually assisting our front-of-house servers by running food and taking back dirty dishes to allow our servers to stay in the front of the restaurant, serving guests,” he explains.
Ottawa’s Grounded Kitchen is also adapting to operate with fewer front-of-house staff with the help of technology. The restaurant opened a second location in January 2023, which uses food lockers created by Edmonton-based software company Truffle Systems.
“You order from your device or a kiosk…and the when your food is ready, you get a QR code text message. You walk up to these boxes, you flash your QR code and the door opens up automatically. Then you take your food and you go sit down,” explains Grounded Kitchen owner, Amir Rahim.
Like Recipe Unlimited’s server systems, Rahim notes that the aim of integrating technology is to free up front-of-house staff to focus on the personal elements of service, rather than on tedious manual tasks.
“We want to have a strong front-of-house concierge-service manager who can talk to customers, make suggestions and use food knowledge, but just take away the mundane, redundant concept of punching in an order, delivering the food and accepting payment,” he says.
Rahim notes that, like Grounded Kitchen’s original location, the brand’s high-tech outpost focuses on food made from scratch and tables are set with cutlery and glassware, so guests can still have a high-quality, sit-down dining experience, even though they’re placing and picking up their own orders.
He compares the system to self-checkout at grocery stores, saying “10 years ago, we were all re-trained as our own cashiers,” he says. “Our industry has to train consumers on how to be order takers. Not servers, not hospitality experts, not food knowledge experts — just order takers.”
Rahim admits that, in its first few weeks, getting the food lockers working seamlessly hasn’t been without hiccups. “Being the first is not always the best thing to do,” he says. “But I do think we’re going to see more of this if we want to solve the labour shortage.”
Give a little, get a lot
Restaurants Canada’s survey found that seven in 10 table-service restaurant owners and eight in 10 quick-service operators perceive that people do not want to work in the restaurant industry. Operators are attempting to entice staff back to the industry with better incentives, with the same survey finding that average hourly wages in the foodservice industry jumped by 9.5 per cent between April 2021 and April 2022.
Restaurants Canada found that 22 per cent of restaurants have begun offering referral bonuses, including some of Recipe Unlimited’s brands, according to Barclay. “Great employees have great friends and family who also want to work so we’ve provided incentives and opportunities for them to refer those people into our restaurants,” he says.
Restaurants Canada also reported that 32 per cent of respondents are now offering benefits, such as healthcare services, for their employees. “There are companies that have realized they have to change and that the industry has to change and are coming up with great ways to become better employers,” explains McAdams.
Michel Falcon, owner of Toronto’s Brasa Peruvian Kitchen, says he’s never struggled to find and keep employees because of the benefits his restaurants offer.
“We pay more — we start at $19 per hour and many of our people are earning $20 and $21 per hour — and our benefits kick in immediately,” he says.
While offering higher wages and benefits may represent an intimidating upfront cost for some operators, Falcon says that this strategy is already paying off in the long-term for him. “We’re still making a profit. Why? Because people don’t leave. We don’t spend a lot of money on learning and development because we train them once and they stay,” he says. “Last year, our year-over-year employee turnover rate was only 16 per cent.”
McAdams says operators need to learn how to understand and meet the needs of their teams. “For some people, it’s make more money; for some people, it’s give them benefits so their kid can get braces or glasses; for others, it’s teach them and give them learning and development opportunities so they can grow as people,” he explains.
Barclay says Recipe Unlimited has begun involving its back-of-house employees in more culinary development and innovation programs so they can feel more creative and empowered in their roles and have a hand in shaping the menus they cook.
Falcon believes that offering these kinds of incentives for employees not only helps retain staff, it allows operators to get the best out of their performance.
“My part of the agreement that I have with our team members is I’m going to pay you the most…I have to pay you benefits and give you learning and development opportunities. On your side, you have to follow the process,” he says.
Carving out a new culture
While low pay and minimal benefits are among the reasons people are leaving the industry, the problems driving the labour shortage also stem from the workplace culture associated with restaurants.
“It’s about leadership,” says McAdams. “People want someone who cares about them…the focus needs to be on caring leaders and then it becomes a caring environment.”
Falcon agrees that re-defining workplace culture in restaurants is essential to attracting and retaining employees. “There is no labour shortage. There is only a shortage of great, aspirational leaders and great workplaces,” he says. “There needs to be a paradigm shift in many operators and how we are building relationships with our team members.”
McAdams says that support for employees helps reduce the “grind” that restaurant industry jobs are traditionally known to demand. “It’s this idea of supporting employees over customers – ‘the customer’s always right’ is no longer the standard and we’re moving towards that,” he says.
“It’s putting policies in place that reduce the impact of what’s called emotional labour, [which is] dealing with the complaints and dealing with people and that’s been a big reason why people have been leaving the industry,” he adds.
He says many operators are moving to “fire customers” when needed in order to support employees who are being harassed, as well as generally increasing their focus on their employees’ mental health.
“All of these tangible things like benefits and pay are very important, but leadership of our people and caring for them is the utmost and the most important thing,” he says.
McAdams describes this change as a shift in focus from the external customers (the diners) to the internal customers (the employees). “Typically, in restaurants, we’ve paid much more attention and spent much more money making sure the external customers are happy,” he explains.
“These companies now are putting as much attention — or even more attention — on their internal customers now than their external are the ones that I see that are succeeding and actually thriving.”
Falcon believes operators need to look to other industries for inspiration on how to re-shape their workplace culture. “Don’t try to find a solution for something that is broken within the industry,” he says.
For example, looking to other industries for innovation led Falcon to adopt a policy of radical pay transparency. He says he recently released a shared Google Sheet that the entire Brasa team has access to, which shares the salary of every employee and a list of the achievements that have helped them earn that salary. “We use it to be a transparent company, but we also use it as a source of motivation,” he says.
Falcon adds that a positive workplace culture not only benefits staff, but customers too. “How can we deliver a great customer experience if we treat our team members poorly?” he says. “That’s no way to motivate.”
Ultimately, McAdams believes the greatest challenge of the labour shortage is that it’s a complex issue without a single solution. “This is not a simple issue and it didn’t happen overnight. It was already established and it’s just been exacerbated and it’s accelerating, he says. “It has the potential of being long-lasting because the reasons people are leaving are different.”
Falcon, too, thinks that what works for one operator may not work for another in addressing this challenge. “I’m building what makes sense for my company culture. If there are some things that I can share that make sense to some other individuals, then absolutely try it out but we shouldn’t be looking at one organization and saying ‘let’s just follow their lead,’’ he advises.
McAdams believes rather than a one-size-fits-all fix, the solution to the labour shortage lies in operators promoting a willing to analyze the ways their individual organizations need to evolve.
“If the industry doesn’t go through some serious reflection and wholesale changes, it’s going to cause a reduction in the [number] of restaurant operators and foodservice operators there,” he says. “Some restaurants are really looking at this as an opportunity and really re-inventing what type of employment they offer.”
BY JESSICA HURAS