The Restaurant Industry Is Broken
Staff are overworked and underpaid, costs are soaring, kitchen culture is toxic, and burnout is rampant. We talked to 27 industry insiders about how to fix everything
The ills of the restaurant industry are what make it so famous—and so ripe for reality TV. Some, like toxic chefs, tension between back- and front-of-house staff, and inhumane working hours, are as old as the industry itself. Others, like rising costs, staff shortages and employee burnout, are newer phenomena. The pandemic didn’t cause these issues; instead, it brought them into sharp relief. Which means they’re here to stay unless something changes. To that end, we spent the past few months in conversation with chefs, restaurateurs and other industry experts. The question was simple: If you could fix the industry, how would you do it? The suggestions we received included creating a restaurant liaison, geothermal vertical farming, a universal basic income and abolishing the kitchen brigade system. In the links below are 27 insiders on what needs to change in order for restaurants—and the people behind them—to thrive in an increasingly uncertain world.
A restaurant is only as good as the ingredients it can afford, and it’s become a lot harder and more expensive to get the goods in recent years. Supply chain snafus, inflation, climate change, war—it all contributes to a world where once-regular menu items may no longer be available. This means reimagining what we’re looking to put on our plates and how we get it—starting in our own backyard.
We’ve all seen the reality food shows with the red-faced, expletive-spewing, hotshot head chef—or heard the stories of their overworked and underpaid subordinates. Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen is in its 21st season, and The Bear, FX’s drama about a fine-dining chef running the family sandwich shop, was the summer’s hit series. Industry jobs—and all the booze, drugs and workplace abuse that come with them—are glamorized, the negative behaviour perpetuated. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Our city is expensive. According to the Ontario Living Wage Network, as of November 2021, a person living here needs to make at least $22.08 an hour to afford the basics: food, clothes, rent, transportation, child and medical care. Yet the minimum wage in Toronto is $15.50. Servers rely on tips to top up their incomes, but restaurants aren’t always busy, and tips can be inconsistent. Paying staff a predictable living wage and benefits means hiking menu prices and going tip-free, something not all restaurateurs—or staff—are prepared to do. And would it even be enough?
In mid-August, the asking rent for a 2,100-square-foot commercial space in Corso Italia was $6,825 a month—and that’s not even including taxes, maintenance and insurance costs. No matter how you slice that number, it’s going to take a lot of sales to make ends meet. In our current economic climate, how can Toronto restaurants go from barely surviving to thriving?
Anyone with the will and the means to cover start-up costs and rent can open a restaurant. In pre-pandemic 2019, the City of Toronto issued 7,988 licences for dine-in establishments. But getting through various government agencies and reams of red tape requires more than passion and a healthy bank account: the system seems designed to keep out first-time small-business owners while the big chain restaurants of the world multiply.
Restaurant industry life is not nine to five. Most people in it end up working evenings and nights and often into the wee hours of the morning, then trying not to wake up their families while eating something quick and filling—a few forkfuls of Kraft Dinner, a bowl of cereal—before crashing. It’s a life that can make spending quality time with kids, partners, friends and family nearly impossible. Factor in a lack of weekends off and next to no personal or vacation days and you have a recipe for burnout.