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The Restaurant Staffing Crisis has a New Fix

Agencies are helping restaurateurs hire skilled help from abroad.

AS THE HANGOVER FROM COVID-19 continues to inflict pain on the hospitality world, restaurateurs and chefs are finding creative ways to source the talent needed to run a proper kitchen — and that means looking farther afield than the local, and increasingly depleted, talent pool.

Once everything reopened, nobody really wanted to work,

says Biana Zorich, co-owner of Petite Thuet bakery and commissary in Toronto. During the pandemic, Zorich — like most food business owners — was forced to reduce her employee count and rely on core staff. She figured once lockdowns were lifted, business would resume as usual and she could hire more staff. But that was not the case.

Those that did apply weren’t qualified, Zorich notes, or wanted “a ridiculous amount of money without having experience.” Of the few applicants that trickled in, some had little formal training. “‘Oh, I bake at home, I make cookies.’ That’s not a profession,” she says. “I mean, I like reading, but I’m not a writer.”

So, Zorich reached out to a recruiting agency that sources employees from abroad. “They are vetted by the agency,” she says. “They come with experience, having worked in Singapore or Dubai, so it’s quite ideal for Canadian businesses. Obviously, I’m the first one to hire local, but if there’s a labour shortage or people who don’t want to work, I have no choice but to look elsewhere.”

According to Toronto restaurateur Mark McEwan, whose restaurants include Bymark, Fabbrica and Diwan, the ongoing labour shortage may have been amplified by the pandemic but it represents a shift in the industry that was already well underway. Even before the pandemic, he hired staff through global recruitment agencies — about 10 percent at any given time, he estimates. He thinks the pandemic pushed many kitchen staff out of the business who might not have been suited to the lifestyle to begin with.

“It became very stylish for a long time. Everybody liked to talk about food, and the aspect of television as it relates to food,” he says. “But you have to be of a certain temperament to be a really competent kitchen chef in a busy restaurant.”

One agency that Zorich and McEwan turn to is AMK Global, a Mississauga-based immigration and recruitment agency that’s been placing skilled workers from abroad in Canada since 2017. Once placed with a Canadian business, the person must continue working with that employer for two years while the agency supports them in the process of obtaining permanent residency.

AMK Global’s placement program has been gaining popularity since the federal government pledged to welcome approximately 500,000 new Canadians annually between 2023 and 2025 through its Federal Skilled Worker Program, says AMK Global’s executive director of international recruitment, Peter Carruthers. Combine that with the labour shortage in Canada’s hospitality industry and Carruthers has his hands full with line cooks, pastry chefs and other types of restaurant workers looking to start the next chapter in their careers and with Canada often their top choice.

The program provides much-needed predictability for employers. “Hiring local is also great, but that employee can cross the street for a buck an hour more,” says Carruthers. “And in the case [of workers from abroad], they come motivated to stay because they’re on track to become permanent residents. It’s a benefit for the employer and it benefits the employee.”

Carruthers suggests that a kitchen brigade is often strongest when it consists of students and part- and full-time employees both local and new to the country. Being able to access all those options may mean the difference between a restaurant having to close its doors or being able to expand.

“What I hear [from employers] is that they’re finding it’s impossible to fill all the jobs that they have,” says Carruthers. “And therefore, they’re reducing the hours that they’re open. Hotels are reducing the number of floors that they have open. So, the opportunity to expand their production capacity is why they’re knocking on our door.”

McEwan is optimistic that staffing will stabilize as a new generation of hospitality workers finds their footing. “It’s like water sloshing around. It takes a while to settle.”
— Lana Hall
Illustration by Graham Roumieu