Operators are scrambling to fill jobs as the industry re-opens


You used to be able to hang out a “Help Wanted” sign and have 50 people line up for the job. Now there are 50 “Help Wanted” signs and one candidate,” says Ian Milford, principal at Vancouver-based JRoss Recruiters.

In fact, according to Restaurant Canada’s Outlook Survey for Q3 2021, 93 per cent of all restaurants across the country reported a staff shortage, with half declaring a “significant shortage.” Statistics Canada’s recent research cited more than 130,000 vacancies in the foodservice and lodging sector, with the majority being restaurant jobs.

While a dearth of qualified candidates predates the pandemic, COVID-19 has made a bad situation worse, giving many workers pause and a chance to step back and re-evaluate (often with the help of government subsidies) their lives and careers. Many used the time and money to re-train for entirely different, more stable, fields, such as tech and healthcare. Some retired, some returned to their home countries and, with lockdowns and visa challenges, can’t get back in. Others gravitated to the flexibility of the gig economy, working for food-delivery companies such as DoorDash, Uber Eats and Lyft. For those who remain, the table has turned. Now sought-after, they have demands — and those demands often go beyond cold, hard cash.

“Money is a ‘satisfier’,” a starting point, says Milford. “More important for top candidates, number 1, is work-life balance. The expectation is that you’re at the restaurant every day, 12 hours a day. While the restaurant may be [the owner’s] life, it doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t necessarily be, the employee’s life. Number 2 is working for an organization that resonates with their beliefs and their core values. Banks and other organizations give staff time off to volunteer and do things meaningful to them, why not the restaurant business?”

Perks and Programs
Todd Barclay, former president and CEO, Restaurants Canada, acknowledges the shortages are not a new issue, “but absolutely it’s been exacerbated by what’s happening with COVID. When you take an industry across an entire country and effectively shut it down, some provinces for many months, getting folks to come back, even when they enjoyed their experiences, is really hard.”

Making it easier will mean adding a little something extra to sweeten the pot. Many restaurants are offering signing bonuses to lure workers in the door, including McDonald’s, which has dangled anywhere from $200 to, in Quebec, up to $1,000, along with a 10-per-cent bump in salary. One sushi restaurant in Florida offered cryptocurrency just for coming in for an interview. Another paid a cash bonus to vaccinated hires. Others, such as Calgary-based Franworks Group, which operates some 100 restaurants in Canada and the U.S., offered referral and signing bonuses, but has focused mostly on retention strategies.

“Retention is critical, as it enables our businesses to respond to lifting restrictions and scale to full capacity faster,” says president Derek Doke. “Whenever possible, we’ve extended salary continuance to team members. In some cases, this was to bridge them to Employment Insurance; at other times we kept employees intact for the duration of provincial closures. We went back to the basics and made sure we were putting our people first when making tough business decisions.”

Then there’s the annual salary, the “satisfier.” Advertising $50,000 for a dishwasher, as one Vancouver restaurant did last summer, is a nice enticement, but is it sustainable? And how will current staff, making minimum wage, react to that? But Barclay says, “It’s important to understand, most people in the restaurant industry are making more than minimum wage [except] servers, but servers make tips — up to $40 an hour. The highest-paid people in restaurants are servers. So, to continue to hear that this is an industry that is low paying, that is not true in aggregate.”

In addition to a competitive salary, much more manageable long-term, many restaurant companies say, are perks and benefits. “Everyone across all industries is trying to provide great work experience and work environment for workers, and we’re doing that, whether it’s related to wages, shift [flexibility] or benefits,” says Barclay.

Some of those perks already in place include flexible work schedules, shorter work weeks, paid vacation, medical and dental benefits, daily pay options that compete with the gig economy, free meals, as well as clear pathways to promotion. Some restaurants have, in fact, hired more junior candidates and devoted more time to training as a way to widen the net and propel promotions.

Going the extra mile, such as allowing personal time off just to re-charge, can fend off burn-out, which is on the rise since fewer workers can mean longer shifts. Those with deeper pockets can offer child care, paid skills training and upgrades, tuition reimbursement, staff-recognition events and sports getaways, as The Keg does, and, for executives and administrators, work-from-home opportunities, are now made easier with apps such as Slack, Teams and Zoom.

Once you snag that great hire, keep them by topping up with profit-sharing, extended medical coverage for physical therapy, massage therapy, wellness benefits, free meals for families, performance bonuses, or pension benefits, as Ottawa-based Aiana does, charitable endeavours or time off just to go see a concert, as Earl’s has done.

The Social Network
Vivian Wang, founder and CEO of Landed, a retail and food-industry recruiter, says candidates are job shopping, not job hunting. So, you need to sell your company to them by employing three to five talking points that focus on pay, bonuses, shift flexibility, diversity and inclusion commitments and opportunities for advancement. And when casting your net for those elusive candidates, she says you need to source them where they are — social media.

“Most Gen Z and millennials spend 30 per cent of their waking hours on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Google and YouTube, in addition to the traditional job boards,” she says. But hiring managers don’t necessarily need to also spend 30 per cent of their waking hours scrolling through these feeds; that’s where automation comes in.

“[Implementing] a conversational AI component is basically a way to engage with candidates over SMS text message and push notifications to their phone,” says Wang. “AI essentially has conversations with candidates, answering questions, learning from the way they interact with that conversational AI, what’s resonating with them and not resonating with them, and iterating your recruitment strategy, highlighting different benefits. A ton of repeatable manual tasks, like sending out paperwork for onboarding, can be automated using AI,” freeing up general managers and staff to service their guests and hone other skills.

Please, Come In
Barclay says less restrictive foreign-worker visas would help clear the way for international candidates, and he’s called on government to organize a national staffing-development strategy that would make it easier to recruit from outside Canada.

“We’re asking for extensions of contracts for temporary foreign workers; various things they can do to free up more people to work, changing the rules and regulations around the type of work that can be included in these temporary foreign-worker programs, for example. Including specific roles and responsibilities in restaurants within these lists are helping us get more people working who are already here and want to work and don’t want to leave. Things are moving in a better direction but we need more help.”

Tech Tools
Restaurant Canada’s Outlook Survey showed 37 per cent of restaurants added new technology last year to help streamline operations and support staff. Online ordering, food-delivery apps, and QR codes have been around a while, but investing in more advanced tech is becoming unavoidable.

“Technology is growing and developing and there will be options for restaurants to take a look at ways in which to increase tech for servers as well as back of house,” says Barclay. “I wouldn’t suggest it’s anywhere near mainstream, but any restaurant right now is looking at ways in which to limit their costs. And if technology will drive some of those cost reductions, operators will look for ways to do that, because they have to survive.”

Lucky Thalas, executive vice-president for Markham, Ont.-based SilverWare POS, is more emphatic. “A proper guest-facing digital platform is critical to simultaneously optimizing sales and the guest experience,” he says. “Allowing the guest to scan a QR code and seamlessly view the menu, place orders and pay through their mobile phone while seated in the restaurant provides the option for a shared server/guest ordering experience. For example, guests can order appetizers and entrées on their mobile device, while the server orders beverages on the POS terminal or handheld device. Either guest or server can then manage the check-splitting or payment function.”

Other tech tools for front-of-house include table-status indicators and floorplan systems that let the server know if the table is occupied or in need of clearing; self-order kiosks; digital reservation systems, which can integrate with a restaurant’s website; and apps that track where customers come from, how often they come, size of party, et cetera.

Back-of-house tech includes kitchen display screens that replace printed tickets and verbal orders and allow all staff access in order to streamline communications; digital temperature sensors to ensure food safety; and digitized inventory-management systems to reduce food waste, and even re-order when inventory is low. And for cooks and chefs, smaller, multi-function systems that are fully programmable,
such as multi-tasking combi- and rapid-cook ovens, Thermo-mix appliances for cooking rice, thickening sauces, fermentation and sous vide applications, as well as the RATIONAL iVario platform — which integrates kettle, griddle, oven and skillet — all speed up service.

If your recruitment efforts focus on the younger generation, Milford says you better auto-up, because millennials expect a connected work environment. “They’ve worked with computers their entire lives and now they’re going into a business that is, in many cases, not tech-heavy at all. And if they have an opportunity to go somewhere that is better aligned with what they’re expecting and how they want to work, then that’s where they’re going to go.”

By Robin Roberts

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