Restaurants reopen to full indoor dining as a 'new reality of hospitality employment' takes hold
Restaurants in Waterloo Region are already noticing an uptick in indoor dining interest after the Ontario government lifted pandemic capacity restrictions but the continuing staffing issue within the hospitality sector may still be a roadblock to recovery.
On Monday at 12:01 a.m., the cap on indoor dining was removed and restaurants like Wildcraft Grill and Long Bar in Waterloo added 110 seats overnight.
“People are making up for lost time now with being able to get back out with friends and loved ones in a safe way and make up for celebrations they missed in the last year and a half,” said Megan Stover, the director of culture and development for Charcoal Group, which operates a chain of restaurants in the region and surrounding areas.
Stover says she’s already fielding calls to book events in the run-up to the holidays.
The Friday announcement to do away with the capacity limits by Ontario Premier Doug Ford was not unexpected according to Stover. She says after sporting and music venues had capacity limits removed, she knew the hospitality sector couldn’t be far behind. That saw management ramp up preparations for a return to full capacity indoor dining – and that included a focus on staffing.
“I’m not going to say it hasn’t been without challenge,” said Stover. “We’ve been looking and carefully curating our team over time. We’ve had a really strong number of staff stay with us through the last 19 months.”
While Wildcraft isn’t scrambling for staff, industry group Restaurants Canada says restaurant owners are struggling to fill their workforce with only 39 per cent of operators expecting to return to pre-pandemic staffing levels in 2022; and that number is projected to hit 20 per cent in 2023.
For Bruce Sutherland, the owner and operator of Grill House in Kitchener, the tables aren’t being brought out just yet – instead takeout will continue to be the primary driver of business.
He says finding staff to meet the proof of vaccination requirement in order to allow for indoor dining has been far too challenging.
“Everything is going up,” said Sutherland. “All the prices, all the food is going up. In order for me to be competitive without putting my prices up, I have to watch the staffing.”
Sutherland says when he has looked to hire he’s come up empty. Sutherland says even offering $18 to $20 an hour has turned up little.
“Nobody replies. Nobody,” said Sutherland.
For William Murray, a professor at the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Guelph, the continued staffing issues within the sector can’t simply be addressed by money.
“If we’re just going out and throwing money and saying, ‘I’m going to pay $18 or $19 an hour,’” said Murray. “You’re not going to get an instantaneous uptick.”
Murray says it’s an employee market when it comes to labour in the sector and says those that have left the sector to find work elsewhere while dining rooms were closed have more employment options.
Murray points to the need to build a strong team environment along with offering opportunities to learn new skills to advance ambitions as part of the “new normal” within the sector.
“The reality is it’s going to take time and nobody likes to hear that honestly but, it will take time for people to feel comfortable, confident in the new reality of hospitality employment,” said Murray.
Whiles Restaurants Canada is predicting a continued labour crunch even as indoor dining reopens, it is more optimistic about the industry’s growth. The group expects growth in 2022 will see overall foodservice sales hit nearly $80 billion – a 3.8 per cent increase from pre-pandemic levels.
At Wildcraft, there is optimism the sector is in for a second coming of the Roaring 20s.
“Our staff are looking for shifts and now is the time for us to be able to service our guests and do it exceptionally well and take care of our team,” said Stover.