Muskoka’s hospitality industry braces for fall after grueling summer

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Pasta tree and smokehouse in Bracebridge. Photo by Stefan Ottenbrite

Business owners and staff in Muskoka’s hospitality industry are still in shock after a busy summer plagued by staff shortages, and they are now preparing for an equally tough fall season.

Restaurant after restaurant has announced reduced hours and temporary closures due to understaffing, and the problem isn’t just affecting restaurant service. Other businesses like TD Bank in Bala and the Dynacare Laboratory and Health Services Center in Bracebridge have also closed due to staff shortages, but the hospitality industry has been hit particularly hard by the shortage as well as the pandemic in general. Touchstone Grill co-owner Tanya Merton said they weren’t able to fill their usual capacity this summer and it all comes down to understaffing.

“I could have doubled or tripled the amount to get us back on our feet after COVID, but I couldn’t do it without staff,” Merton said. “My staff went above and beyond and worked seven [or] 14 days in a row, just to try and get their money back too from not being able to work for months with COVID. “

Merton says the lack of affordable housing in the area is the main reason for the shortage. Muskoka is hit by out-of-town visitors as more people are excluded from the area, she said.

A housing and staff crisis in one

Although the housing crisis in Muskoka existed before the pandemic, COVID has put additional pressure on the problem, causing pain to the community and the tourism industry, she said. As students quit their summer jobs and return to school, she worries about the added stress local businesses face during the fall and winter.

“Now we are really seeing the number of people who have had to leave Muskoka because they cannot afford it,” she said. “The bidding wars that go on in Muskoka to buy houses, they pay way more than it’s actually worth to get out of town and come here because they feel safer, but people who were born and raised in this community cannot stay here. They are forced to leave.

The patio of the Touchstone Resort. Photo courtesy of Touchstone Resort

One solution to help alleviate the shortage could be to offer a culinary program at Georgian College’s existing campus in Bracebridge, Merton said. People who already live in the community could study culinary arts without traveling to Barrie, and local businesses could hire students for apprenticeships and other placements.

But more than that, she believes housing needs to be addressed. Municipalities must work together to address the lack of affordable housing and make use of empty housing, Merton said, especially as businesses continue to “cry out for staff.”

Alison Young is the Chef at Riverwalk Restaurant in Bracebridge and also works alongside Executive Chef David Friesen at her other restaurants, Pasta Tree & Smokehouse and The Oven. They laid off 55 people at the start of the pandemic and now with the students returning to college, they only have five staff left, Young said.

The lack of kitchen staff in particular has caused them to only open The Oven for the summer and limit Pasta Tree & Smokehouse to takeout while the Riverwalk undergoes repairs. However, when construction is complete, plans to reopen the Riverwalk will also depend on their ability to find staff.

In a recent Restaurants Canada survey, an advocacy group representing the restaurant industry, 80 percent of respondents said they had difficulty hiring administrative staff and 67 percent reported difficulty filling managerial positions. Ads seeking staff for the Pasta Tree have been online for months with no results, and due to housing issues they are unable to recruit staff outside of Muskoka. The restaurant needs at least five people in the kitchen, and at the moment they only have one.

“I’ve never seen a year like this before. Never, ”Young said. “If people want to move, there’s nowhere to go. We had three employees that we couldn’t hire because they couldn’t find places to live here, and one of our employees currently has an apartment in Toronto and she’s going to commute.

The hospitality industry is gearing up for fall

While the end of summer might seem like a welcome respite, Young said they were just as busy and there were no signs of slowing down business. She hopes the closure of seasonal resorts as well as the return of children to school will provide more options for recruiting staff as seasonal staff seek other work and parents re-enter the workforce.

Besides a shortage of clerical staff, the way customers treated room attendants played a role in closing the Pasta Tree dining room for the summer. Young said it’s easier to disappoint people by not bringing them in at all rather than disappointing them when they get there and asking them to direct that frustration to their staff.

Part of the statement released by The Oar & Paddle. Image courtesy of The Oar & Paddle via Facebook

“All of our university students came back to me and said, ‘We will serve if you want,’ and we said, ‘No, we can’t open the restaurant and have you treated like you have been treated’, Young said. “They’ll be back next year when, hopefully, things get a lot better.”

The treatment of staff throughout the shortage and pandemic has been a widespread problem. Local businesses like The Oar & Paddle and Momma’s Bear Ice Cream and Sweets have issued statements asking customers to be kind to their staff, and much of the conflict has come over the enforcement of COVID restrictions and regulations.

“People didn’t want to obey government-imposed rules,” Young said. “We didn’t put them in place. We found it very difficult just because customers were criticizing our staff for imposing masks and things like that. It was really upsetting for us because everyone was expressing their frustrations to the staff. “

A 2018 Statistics Canada study found that the hospitality industry offered a lower quality of employment than other industries, which was insufficient in areas such as training opportunities, social environment, income and benefits. These drawbacks associated with COVID-related grievances have led many people to quit the industry altogether.

Employment in accommodation and food services fell 18.7% in July 2021 compared to February 2020, according to Statistics Canada Labor Force Survey. This means that nearly 230,000 fewer people are working in the hospitality industry now than at the start of the pandemic, which is more than a third of the difference between current jobs and those before the pandemic.

Asking for compassion and conformity

With proof of vaccination requirements in effect as of September 22, Young and his team are terrified of enforcing the mandates demonstrations take place in hospitals across the province. Companies could face charges under Ontario’s Reopening Act if they choose not to follow suit, and while Young supports the use of proof of vaccination as a means of ensuring personal safety, the onus of its staff to implement the regulations remains a concern.

Prices could rise as companies must designate staff to verify proof of vaccination, Young said, and continued aggression from opponents could push more people out of the industry. To help protect their staff, anyone wishing to book at The Oven in the future will need to provide their email address and agree to follow the guidelines.

“We will send them our policies and procedures by email and we will say to them, ‘Here they are frank, if you choose not to abide by them, you are more than welcome not to join us,” “said Young. . “And we’ve been doing this for years, if someone mistreats our employees, we ask them to leave.”

While increased access to housing is part of the equation, Young said the hospitality industry also needs an overhaul. Changes like an increase in wages and automatic tips could help, but more than that, she hopes there will be a major change in the respect towards waiters, kitchen staff and others in the hospitality industry.

“In every industry, people need compassion, and they have to learn that people choose to do it because they love to do it,” Young said. “People serve because they like it, not because they have to these days, and that pushes people out of the industry. The lack of respect and treatment of people is insane.


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