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As city restaurants come out of hibernation, many face a labour shortfall | CBC News

For two months, Bilal Chehade, better known as “Bill,” has been waiting for the province’s lockdown restrictions to lift so he can once again offer his authentic Lebanese cuisine to his customers in-person, rather than as takeout only. 

“We’re really looking forward to serving our guests and welcoming our customers again,” he said. “We hope it sticks this time.” 

Before the pandemic struck last March, Yasmin, the restaurant Chehade runs with his wife Farah in London’s Masonville area had a staff of 21. Now, after months of lockdown, the couple has 11 employees and is scrambling to find new, experienced waitstaff for their fine cuisine restaurant ahead of Friday, when the province will allow up to four people seated at a restaurant table outdoors. 

“It’s not just standing behind a counter ringing up a sandwich. Customers want someone who knows what they’re talking about. It takes training and time.” 

Experienced wait staff hard to find

“Good servers are hard to find. A lot of the students, they’ve either graduated or left town and the people with experience, the other restaurants are gulping them up.”

Mike Smith, the owner of the iconic Joe Kool’s, says it’s hard to lure workers to an industry whose future is tied to the uncertainty of fluctuating coronavirus case numbers and rapidly changing public health restrictions. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

It’s a problem faced by dozens of restaurants across the city, after months of restrictions, many of the students who make up the backbone of the industry’s workforce have either gone back to their hometowns or moved on, just as their former employers are lurching back to life. 

“One of the things that’s most important to me is getting people back to work. People need a purpose,” said Mike Smith, the owner of Joe Kool’s, Toboggan and Foolini Koolini’s. 

“My biggest concern is the young people, especially in our industry who haven’t had work for the better part of a year. To get them back into the swing of things is most important.” 

Smith said before the pandemic began, he had a staff of over 200 at his three downtown restaurants. He’s now down to a skeleton crew of only 30. 

It means his managers are scrambling to recall staff from their pandemic furlough or find new employees. Smith said his restaurants were already getting calls for reservations within minutes of the province announcing patios would reopen Friday.

With an uncertain future, attracting workers is tough 

Except, it’s hard to lure workers into an industry whose future hinges on the uncertainty of fluctuating coronavirus case numbers and pandemic health restrictions that often change by the day. 

Steve Tazares, the owner of Billy T’s Roadhouse on Highbury Ave. shows off his newly expanded patio that can seat 70 outdoors. He expects a lineup across the parking lot when he’s allowed to open it on Friday. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

“It would be stop and go. You would be open with some limitations then you’d be closed, then you’d reopen. It’s tough for staffing. People want to come back, but they want to come back for good. Not just a couple of months then going back on unemployment or CERB or whatever.”

Smith, like many restauranteurs, is expecting a full house. Or, at least, as full as the current pandemic safety limits will allow. 

Across town at Billy T’s Roadhouse on Highbury Avenue, owner Steve Tazares showed off his newly expanded patio that stretches into the vast parking lot that surrounds the building. 

He’s thankful for the extra capacity after London City Hall made it easier on restaurants by allowing temporary extensions to their patios by reducing their parking requirements last year. 

“We seat about 70 here, with social distancing,” he said. “The extended patio that the government let us do has really helped out. We put another 45 seats out there.”  

On Friday, when provincial restrictions lift on outdoor activities, Tazares expects a full patio and maybe even a lineup that stretches through his parking lot. 

Most of his staff have been off on a furlough that’s lasted months because he wouldn’t pay the markup on online delivery services because it was too high. 

“We didn’t open for takeout,” he said. “We don’t do Uber Eats or stuff, no delivery, just pickup. “

It’s why Tazares is eager to get back into the swing of things, even if it might take some time to get back up to full speed. 

“It will be nice to see the customers again, all their nice smiling faces and the staff,” he said. “I miss the customers. We have great customers here. The staff too.”

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