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Toronto Fair pay, benefits and safe workplaces: How some Toronto restaurants are becoming better employers

Good luck scanning Canada’s Top 100 Employer List and finding a restaurant.

The annual spotlight of outstanding companies to work for, based on physical workspace, atmosphere, benefits, time off, communication, performance management, training and community involvement, features employers from energy, transportation, education, law, technology, retail, manufacturing and many other sectors. There is not one restaurant on the 2019 list.

It’s no wonder that kitchens have difficulty retaining talent, considering that they are known for harsh work conditions, rampant wage theft – cooks often work 12 hour-days for minimum wage or less – plus poor attitudes and practices about abusive behaviour, even a public mythologizing of brutish leadership. But the industry is slowly crawling out of the Stone Age.

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Recently, the topic of great employers arose in a Toronto hospitality industry Facebook group. “Snitch on the good ones,” the instigator of the discussion wrote. Praise tended to be personal, concerning bosses who were creating safe, positive, fair work environments – Emma’s Country Kitchen, FK, Grand Cru Deli (formerly Thoroughbred Food & Drink), Globe Bistro, Chula Taberna Mexicana, Lady Marmalade, Tabule, Gusto 54, Rodney’s Oyster House, Soco, The Jim, and Pure Spirits.

The concrete measures of these restaurants tend to rally around a handful of core initiatives: fair pay/tip distribution, benefits, flexible schedules and formalized HR practices outlining clear procedures for training and addressing harassment.

“We hear about the labour shortage and thankfully we don’t seem to have that issue,” says Diana Sideris, president of Tabule Restaurant Group, which employs about 155 people at four restaurants. “People reach out to us to work and we actually have a waiting list for staff at some locations.”

Tabule practises open book management, allowing employees access to the business’s financial records, fostering loyalty as well as providing an opportunity to learn how ownership works. The restaurants also have zero-tolerance policies regarding harassment or discrimination based on gender, race, religion, disability or sexual orientation. Full-time employees have access to health benefits that include 80-per-cent coverage for dental and prescriptions.

This can be a challenge for smaller restaurants, since larger groups often get better insurance rates a person. Initially, the owners of Emma’s Country Kitchen attempted to cover this with a 3-per-cent surcharge to customers, but media attention brought in unwanted focus and a wave of hate mail from people who had never dined at the restaurant.

“We received thousands of messages and e-mails that were extremely nasty and accusatory about what people assumed our intentions were,” co-owner Rachel Pellett says.

In the end, Ms. Pellett and her partner chose to pay for her full-time employee’s health and dental benefits out of pocket. The restaurant also provides four-day work weeks, 50 per cent of CPR training costs, covers all costs for food handler and Smart Serve certification (including hourly pay for time spent on courses), an unusually even tip pool structure, end of year bonuses and paid breaks (shockingly rare).

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Rachel Pellett, left, and Heather Mee, co-owners of Emma's Country Kitchen.

Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

“We pay all of our employees a living wage,” Ms. Pellett says. “This also includes holiday pay, stat pay, overtime and all of the government mandated things that all restaurants should do, but many unfortunately don’t.”

One example of this is day rates, where cooks are paid a fixed rate regardless of how many hours they work and are cheated out of overtime pay. Another is pressure to come in early and work unpaid hours. So just paying the legal minimum for all hours worked is above average.

Health benefits are still rare, but becoming more common as restaurants seek to attract talent in a competitive field.

And some companies are finding interesting ways to offer perks. Gusto 54 Restaurant Group, which has more than 300 full-time employees, offers some of these benefits and policies through phone apps. League works like a digital wallet, enabling users to track how much of their coverage has been used (rather than texting your wife to ask if there’s enough left in the annual dental allotment for a cleaning). Axonify conducts routine staff training through a mandatory, a five-minute session before each shift. Through quizzes about menu information (of course gamified with points and rewards) the tool helps eliminate time-consuming meetings and written tests.

Some positive incentives, such as respect and dignity, a boss who cleans a backed-up toilet, are intangible, yet no less important.

“Sadly, I think that because the majority of restaurants are so poorly run,” says Shawn Cooper, co-owner of FK, “it stands out when the basics like respect and consideration happen.”

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A restaurant with strong work culture can feel like a family. But the hours can also close employees off from the outside world. While servers often need to make time for classes or auditions (hence the value of flexible schedules), cooks are admonished for having priorities outside the kitchen. So just encouraging outside interests creates a noticeable shift.

“If they decide to pursue other things, we support that,” Ms. Cooper says. “Presently, I have someone working to be in real estate and another opening her own bar. I know there’s a world outside of what we do here, though that simple concept is very often lost on restaurant owners or managers and they for some unfathomable reason take it personally.”

These are obviously not the only good employers in this city. There are other restaurants that provide parental leave (Drake Hotel), health benefits (Blackbird Baking Co.) or where the owner simply pays out of pocket for staff’s dental visits (Honest Weight).

It’s not impossible to treat employees fairly. But in the restaurant industry – where the people who systematically exploit their employees, who cry poor whenever they’re asked about wages or benefits, are celebrated on top 10 lists – those going above and beyond to create better work environments deserve recognition.

“There are lots of bad people in this industry,” says Ed Ho, owner of Globe Bistro. “They steal from their employees. They sexually harass their employees and threaten them. As a starting point, if you can create a safe environment that does not include any of those things, you’re probably better than 50 per cent of the restaurant people out there.”

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