Diners may have to exercise a bit more patience in the coming months. Labour shortages are happening across the globe right now, and West Nipissing is no exception, with restaurants taking the brunt of it. Throughout the month of August, local restaurants have been posting amendments to their schedules and their dining options, such as temporarily closing patios, not allowing take-out or even closing altogether on some weekends due to being short-staffed.
Back in July, the Labour Market Group, which produces monthly reports on labour activity in the Nipissing and Parry Sound Districts, predicted just this crisis. In fact, it showed that roughly 64% of businesses in the accommodations and food services sector would be facing big labour shortages within the following 3 months, more than any other industry by far.
This has begun to affect local establishments in very drastic ways. Looking to go to Gervais’ Restaurant over the weekend? Unfortunately, that has not possible since they’ve been closed on Saturdays and Sundays. Want to enjoy the last bit of summer weather with outdoor seating at Lorraine’s? They’ve had to take down their outdoor tent-seating because they don’t have the staff to manage the additional tables. Those are only a few examples.
The biggest shortages are in the kitchen. Eric Genette, owner of Gervais’ Restaurant, says the reason they’re not open on weekends is because of kitchen and back-of-house staffing problems. He’s not the only one either. “We only have 3 out of the normal 5 cooks,” rues Rick Dumont, co-owner of Lorraine’s Restaurant. Over at Lavigne Tavern, owner Guy Fortier has been short one cook for nearly the whole month of August. When the restaurant got hit with COVID, that meant closing altogether for a few days.
Of course, they are all looking to hire, but their job postings are remaining unanswered, or employers are just not finding the reliability they need. Dumont’s job posting for 2 cooks and 3 waitresses have been online for 5 months. “We’ve had no applications whatsoever.” Guenette’s posts have also been up for a few months, and although he has had some replies, he hasn’t been able to get anyone long-term. “I’ve hired people, but they don’t stay,” he explains. “It’s happened in the past 3 months; no-shows at interviews, or at the job after they’re hired, and some come in late for work.” Luckily for Guy Fortier, he says he’s tentatively found someone to fill the cook position, but as he explains, his “new” cook is actually a former employee coming back to work for him. A “lucky break,” he calls it.
However, it’s not all luck. Fortier’s current staff is supplemented with many returning workers. “We have people who have worked for us before making themselves available for weekends, or in times of need,” he describes. “Alumni Weekends,” he calls it with a chuckle.
Keeping staff happy enough to come back to work is one of the most important focuses for every restaurant owner in West Nipissing. “You have to be very disciplined with regards to hiring and retaining talent. We have a heavy focus on employee engagement,” explains Bruno Lepage, who co-owns RIV Chip stand. He says that morale is key, and works to foster a positive and collaborative work environment. “Nobody wants to go to work if it’s not fun.” Guenette’s solution for staff retention was the closure of Gervais’ on weekends. “In order to try and retain the staff we have, I would rather close weekends than burn them out,” he explains. “Since I’ve been closed for the 2 days, morale has been better.” Over at Lorraine’s, they’ve decided to close on the upcoming long weekend and offer their staff a thank you party for their hard work over the past several months.
This is where patience and understanding is going to be important for clients of all local restaurants. Some owners are sacrificing some parts of their service for the sake of their staff. While not all restaurants are going as far as closing down on weekends, there is still a ripple effect for other local establishments. Dumont describes how busy his breakfast rushes have been since Gervais’ weekend closures. “Customers get mad when we can’t seat them.” He stresses that there’s only so much space, and only so much staff to serve people. Some people are also going as far as the Lavigne Tavern since the weekend closures. “The weekends where Gervais were closed, we had more people show up here,” confirms Fortier. “It’s been unusually busy this year, customer demand has exceeded our ability to produce, even though we’ve upgraded the kitchen in the last year.”
Pandemic not the only cause
Many assume that the COVID-19 pandemic is the cause of the current labour shortage. However, Chantal Carré, Director of Employment Services for Employment Options, says the writing has been on the wall since before the pandemic even began. “The pandemic was not the unique factor to this problem; it has simply exacerbated this problem that we have been predicting for years.” She says the replacement rate for workers leaving the labour force is a major factor. “Our rate of individuals leaving the area, particularly youth, is much higher than our rates of immigration, which has an overall effect on our workforce. None of that is due to the pandemic, but it has made it worse.”