Low wages, small workforce leaves booming B.C. restaurants without chefs

Many are advocating for the federal government to step in and issue more visas for foreign workers

The restaurant industry may be booming in British Columbia, but a combination of the high cost of living, tight profit margins and a shrinking workforce has made it difficult for kitchens to find enough staff.

Eric Pateman, president of Edible Canada, said the company’s restaurant at Vancouver’s popular tourist destination Granville Island has been short anywhere from two to five chefs at a time for more than two years. That’s meant scaling back the restaurant’s hours or turning down special events, which has been a financial blow, Pateman said.

While the cost of living in Vancouver is a contributing problem, Pateman said a range of issues including long hours, low wages, the gratuity system and rising business costs are factors as well.

“The millennial generation … even the older chefs I’m seeing and the older cooks I’m seeing, are just saying ‘We don’t want to do this anymore. That’s not the career we want. That’s not how hard we want to work.’ It’s certainly not an easy industry,” he said. “I think there needs to be some levelling in the playing field … to get that wage up to a living wage, which at the end of the day entices more people to be in the industry.”

Mark von Schellwitz, vice-president Western Canada with Restaurants Canada, said B.C. may be experiencing a “perfect storm” of challenges in finding chefs but communities across the country are having similar problems.

The number of young people getting into the restaurant business is shrinking while the demand is growing, he said.

A regional “mismatch” of skills and needs exist that leaves some rural communities without enough young people to hire and people aren’t willing to move to fill the vacancies, he said.

“People want to be employed near where they live and these jobs are not high executive paying jobs, it just doesn’t make economic sense to move somebody,” he said.

The cost of running a restaurant has also increased significantly — notably with rising food costs — but menu prices have remained stagnant, leaving little room to raise workers’ wages, he said.

Jamil Mawani of Jambo Grill in Vancouver said the family run business has turned to non-traditional labour markets and temporary foreign workers to fill the gaps in the kitchen.

While the restaurant business tends to attract younger staff, he said they’ve looked to older workers with experience cooking Indian and African inspired cuisine to work as chefs in their kitchen.

They do hire plenty of younger staff too, Mawani added, to create a balance of energy and skill.

In an industry with a high turnover, Mawani said they’ve managed to hang on to a few long-term employees by improving wages and offering flexible hours.

A perk of having the family involved in the business is the owners can “thrown on an apron” when there have been prolonged vacancies, he said.

Many are advocating for the federal government to step in and issue more visas for foreign workers to help fill the gaps.

Darren Clay, executive culinary chef instructor at Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, said international students typically seek visas to stay and work after completing their program, but in the past year those visas don’t appear to be getting approved.

“(It’s) a little bit boggling for me because we have such a shortage of workers and these are all well-trained people who work and want to stay here to help out this industry and they are being sent home after their studies,” Clay said.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said in a statement all international students can apply for the post-graduation work permit program and can even qualify for permanent residency through an express program. The programs do not address specific labour shortages and industry-based or occupational data is not collected, it said.

The department said businesses can apply to hire workers through the temporary foreign workers program if they can demonstrate they’ve been unable to hire Canadians or permanent residents.

But Pateman said the process of requesting a foreign worker for every vacant position is onerous and the government could make it easier for small businesses to meet their labour demands.

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