Some Toronto restaurants gearing up for patio dining this Friday face staff shortages

Restaurants across Ontario are scrambling to set-up patios as outdoor dining is set to resume on Friday, but with many employees not returning to work, finding new staff is proving to be a big challenge.

“A bit over 50 per cent (staff) returned,” said Oretta bar manager Alessandro Aureli. “We thought we were going to get more people to come in, but some of our staff have moved on, don’t feel safe yet to come back and that is understandable.”

The King Street West restaurant has been proactively planning for the return of patio season and even held a hiring blitz last week, but they will still be short staffed —meaning managers will have to serve and bus tables themselves.

“I thought we were going to get a better response,” said Aureli, who adds it’s highly competitive in the industry to hire experienced staff. “If you like someone you have to hire them right away – we were getting emails two hours later saying they accepted another job.”

The Ontario government had originally estimated moving into Step 1 of its reopening plan the week of June 14 and the decision to move it up a few days ahead of schedule caught some restaurants by surprise.

“We didn’t expect this Friday to be open, we’re always aiming for June 14 and it’s hard to rally employees to get their schedule in place so soon,” said Belfast Love manager Claudio Savone.

He said only about a quarter of their staff will be returning for this weekend.

“Luckily, we have three other venues to support us.”

According to Restaurants Canada, the food service and hospitality industry employed 454,000 people in Ontario before the pandemic. That number was down to 326,000 as of May 2021.

For much of the pandemic, dinning has been prohibited and industry experts say the cycle of shutdowns and reopenings has forced many people to make a career change.

“A lot of staff have been laid off for so long, have left the industry and taken other jobs,” said James Rilett, Vice President, Central Canada, for Restaurants Canada.

“You have to have certainty, you have to be able pay your bills and feed your families –it is hard to replace them, these are a lot of talented staff, so there will be some bumps in the road.”

Another factor Aureli believes is financial support from the federal government including the CERB that was introduced in early 2020 as COVID-19 forced many businesses to close.

“A lot of the jobs are minimum wage, or below minimum wage – for some people the choice is easy and it is better to be home and safe.”

Despite the staff shortages, many restaurants say they will make due, planning more hiring blitzes when there is a guarantee that indoor dinning will be allowed again.