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“When you’re working 16-hour days, you don’t have time to consider anything else”: How the pandemic gave two Toronto restaurant lifers a fresh start in Bracebridge

"When you’re working 16-hour days, you don’t have time to consider anything else": How the pandemic gave two Toronto restaurant lifers a fresh start in Bracebridge

The hospitality industry is facing a severe staff shortage, as many longtime bar and restaurant workers departed the industry during the pandemic. While both labour and management voices cite money as the root cause—frustration over low wages, or the continuation of government benefit payments, depending on your point of view—there are other factors, too. Maruta Ancans and Scott Mochrie, former Toronto hospitality workers with more than 35 combined years in the industry, say the time-off forced by the early pandemic allowed them, and many in their industry, to reconsider their options, leaving bars and restaurants for previously unimaginable opportunities. We spoke with Ancans and Mochrie, who have relocated to Bracebridge, about leaving the industry, and what they’re up to now.

Maruta: I’d been working as a server and a bartender in Toronto for roughly a decade, starting when I was in university. When Covid hit, I was working at Trinity Commons, and I had previously been at Woodhouse Brewing Co. and High Park Brewery.

Scott: For me, it was 25 years, give or take. I started right out of university to cover my bills, and decided it was a career. I really loved it. Maruta and I met at my first bar, Kilgour’s, where she was a customer. After that, I opened the Toronto Temperance Society, which didn’t last very long. I spent some time at the Hoof Café, then Maruta and I worked together at Mitzi’s Sister. I was at Food and Liquor on Queen West, where I had been for about six years, when the pandemic hit.

Maruta: To be honest, I hadn’t planned on staying in the industry for as long as I had. Ten years just flew right by. I found a community working in bars and restaurants—it felt almost like a family. So when Covid hit, while I didn’t know what was going to happen, I didn’t immediately think I was going to leave the industry.

Scott: Personally, I had never considered leaving. When I was working at bars, I’d meet a new person, and they’d be like “Oh, you’re a bartender—but what do you really do?” And I’d say “no, this is it. This is what I do.” But in March of last year, my hours were drastically cut. I was very thankful for CERB. Everyone was terrified. For me, it was scary trying to figure out whether I could jump through a different hoop, into a new industry.

Maruta: I remember watching CP24 and thinking, oh, maybe this will just be like SARS. And then, all of a sudden, everything was shut down. I wasn’t at work, so I was collecting CERB, and it was nice at first to have the free time, but then what was I going to do?

Scott: I have family in Bracebridge and Maruta’s family has had a cabin in the area for years. Maruta had always dreamed of getting out of the city, but we hadn’t really put together a plan. It was just one of those things that we talked about. We wound up with an opportunity to look at houses up here; we didn’t really think home ownership was an option.

Maruta: It definitely wasn’t an option in Toronto.

Scott: We saw a house in Bracebridge in August, and eight days later, we owned it. Our mortgage is half of what our rent was in Toronto—and we were very happy with our rent in Toronto. We made the move in October.

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Maruta: It wouldn’t have been an option for us a few months later.

Scott: If we had waited, we would have been priced out. Our realtor has told us that the price of our house would have increased 50 per cent from what we paid for it.

Maruta: The big decision was whether we were going to stick it out in bars and restaurants and see if things returned to normal, or whether we were going to look for something different. When we moved up here, it was starting over. Neither of us works in hospitality anymore.

Scott: I’m 46, and I’ve given myself repetitive motion injuries from shaking cocktails. The industry is punishing, especially as you get older. Not many jobs have benefits. Not many jobs have an end-game. So my thinking was: I’ve left town, I’m starting over. I’ve left my resume in Toronto. I had a fear that, if I started at another bar, I’d blink and suddenly I’d be 60. It didn’t feel like that was the right financial decision.

Maruta: During the time we were off work, being able to reassess our situation, look at what we’ve been doing for the last 10 or 20 years and to decide whether this was still a good fit, felt like a luxury—if you can say that anything about Covid has been a luxury.

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Scott: There are a lot of people, like us, who are leaving hospitality, but I don’t think it’s CERB that did it. It’s that we had time to think. Most people in hospitality, especially back-of-house staff, never found a place that they loved. It’s getting better—younger chefs are starting to treat their employees and the people who work with them a lot better—but it’s not too long ago that throwing pans at people in the kitchen, or getting yelled at, belittled, or physically assaulted at work, was commonplace. I feel like that was already changing prior to Covid.

Maruta: But it was still there, to some degree. And that’s part of what pushes people out of the industry.

Scott: People had a moment to find some self-worth, and realize that being treated like that isn’t worth it. There are so many situations where people aren’t getting paid enough to go through what they’re going through.

Maruta: When you’re working 16-hour days just to survive, you don’t have time to consider whether you could be doing anything else.

Scott: I was able to leverage my people skills into a job as a banking advisor intern at RBC, and I’m getting my accreditation in mutual funds. The accreditation is self-directed—I could take the exam tomorrow or I could do it in a few weeks. My role will be helping people make better banking decisions moving forward. I like dealing with people, and I want to help people. It’s actually a more seamless transition than I had anticipated, because I need to be kind and trustworthy—all things I had really enjoyed about my experiences in the bar industry. The hardest part was trying to figure out who I could be; mentally, trying to reinvent yourself is tricky. After twenty-five years in the bartending business, I was making some good money. I did very well at my last bartending job, but again, it took me 25 years. I am starting a new career, and there is a good opportunity to make a fair, good wage now.

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Maruta: I’m working in landscaping, and taking horticulture classes. I feel very lucky that we were able to make the move here and start a new life. Not a lot of people can say that.

Scott: I do miss what the hospitality industry was to me. But that’s not what it is now.

Maruta: I just turned 40. I’m looking to find something that’s a little bit easier on me, mentally and physically. I have incredibly fond memories of hospitality. Do I want to return? Probably not. But would I like to, every once and a while, sneak in and do a shift or two? Yes, absolutely.


Have you recently left the hospitality industry for something entirely different? Let us know at food@torontolife.com. 

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