Quebec’s restauranteurs cautiously optimistic about their prospects in 2024

Owners are fed up with clients who reserve tables but never show up, says the RAQ

While soaring inflation and labour shortages are just two of the issues currently afflicting restaurant operators in Laval, Montreal and the rest of Quebec, the province’s restauranteurs remain cautiously optimistic about their prospects in the new year, although there are still problems to be worked out.

Not all is good in the restaurant sector across Canada, according to reactions gathered by a nationwide restaurant industry group after the Trudeau government issued its 2023 Fall Economic Statement last month.

Inflation and labour

The government missed an opportunity to implement sector-specific support for the restaurant industry, which was the hardest hit by the pandemic, claimed Restaurants Canada.

Arthur Schiller, founder and CEO of “BY2048,” an upstart company that makes and markets a plant-based substitute for smoked salmon, was one of the many Quebec-based food industry players who took part in the RAQ’s annual gathering at the Marché Bonsecours in Old Montreal last month. (Photo: Martin C. Barry, Newsfirst Multimedia)

“The industry does not want a handout, but rather they need more time for recovery and without more government support the foodservice industry is running out of runway,” they said in a statement.

The trade group said the update left little room for optimism for the more than 95,000 restaurant operators who employ over 1.1 million people across Canada to help deal with record-high inflation, the soaring cost of food, and increasing labour shortages.

CEBA and immigration

Among the measures Restaurants Canada is urging the government to adopt in order to promote bottom-line growth would be revisiting the Covid pandemic CEBA repayment plan by extending the interest-free period by 12 months. They are also calling on the government to implement a pilot project for a dedicated immigration stream for the hospitality sector.

While Restaurants Canada said the country’s food service sector achieved remarkable growth in the past year, projected to reach $110 billion by the end of 2023, they added that it didn’t translate into a fatter bottom line for most food service businesses, with 51 per cent operating at a loss or barely breaking even, compared to just 12 per cent before the pandemic.

Annual gathering of RAQ

Last month, Quebec’s largest trade group for restaurant operators, the Association Restauration Québec (ARQ), held its annual gathering for 5,600 RAQ members from all over the province at the Marché Bonsecours in Old Montreal.

In an interview with Newsfirst Multimedia, RAQ vice-president for public and government affairs Martin Vézina named off a few of the most pressing issues now facing Quebec’s restauranteurs. Among them are the question of a growing discrepancy between the earnings of table service employees (up to $40 per hour with tips) and kitchen workers ($22-$25 an hour without tips).

Wage discrepancies

“There’s a difference of around $15 an hour and this is creating friction,” Vézina said, noting that the province’s current regulations regarding tipping revenues don’t allow the employer to divide them up more equitably between different types of workers.

He said the RAQ is lobbying the provincial government to allow restauranteurs to do just that, while also asking Quebec to include some protections in the law to prevent unscrupulous employers from using it as a pretext to clandestinely exploit workers.

Labour shortages persist

Like Restaurants Canada, the RAQ has serious concerns about labour shortages. In addition to a chronic lack of workers, the province’s labour laws currently place some limits on when and for how long employees can be asked to work. RAQ wouldn’t mind if that requirement were loosened up a bit – at least until the province’s economy picks up.

Finally, an issue that has been rankling a growing number of the province’s restauranteurs for some time has nothing to do workers or tips, but rather the restaurant customers themselves. According to Vézina, restaurant owners and personnel are fed up with clients who make table reservations, but then never show up.

Selvananthini Shanmugarasa, owner of the Nanthu Kitchen in Montreal’s Côte des Neiges district, was intrigued by Keenon Robotics’ “Dinerbots,” but said she was unlikely to be able to use one at her relatively modest restaurant. (Photo: Martin C. Barry, Newsfirst Multimedia)

Missed reservation penalty

He said that over the coming Christmas holidays, some restaurants will be writing off tens of thousands of dollars in income which will be lost for this reason alone: people who simply decide not to respect their reservation. He said the RAQ is asking Quebec to pass legislation that would allow restaurants to impose a $20 penalty.

According to Vézina, as many as 3,500 restaurants (15-18 per cent of the province’s eating establishments) closed permanently as a result of the Covid pandemic. Tracking the numbers by following lists of restaurant permits issued by the Quebec Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the association has determined that closings continue to exceed openings of new restaurants.

Served by a ‘Dinerbot’

Some of the innovations being promoted as labour-saving alternatives during the RAQ’s trade show last month were Shanghai-based Keenon Robotics’ table server “Dinerbots,” capable of performing rudimentary waitressing tasks, such as delivering food and beverages to seated patrons. The concept reportedly has started to catch on in some parts of Asia, although not yet in Canada or Quebec.

Among the ARQ members looking for new ideas at the exhibition’s many corporate booths was Selvananthini Shanmugarasa, owner of the Nanthu Kitchen bakery/restaurant in Montreal’s Côte des Neiges district. Although she was intrigued by the idea of a robot providing a helping hand in her establishment, she passed on it, saying her business was probably too small to justify the cost.