How a Montreal restaurant kept its staff through the pandemic and what it might mean for the industry's future

·3 min read
How a Montreal restaurant kept its staff through the pandemic and what it might mean for the industry's future
Candide Restaurant managed to hold onto staff like line-cook Gabriel Gervais  (Rowan Kennedy/CBC  - image credit)
Candide Restaurant managed to hold onto staff like line-cook Gabriel Gervais (Rowan Kennedy/CBC - image credit)

Montreal restaurants are reopening their terrasses for outdoor dining, but many are scrambling to find the staff to cook and serve an eager clientele.

Some, however, like Restaurant Candide in Griffintown, are opening fully staffed and booked for the weekend.

Line-cook Gabriel Gervais knew throughout the dark days of the lockdown that he would not lose — or leave — his job.

"I felt supported. I didn't have to ask myself whether I had to find another job," Gervais said.

Candide offers its staff a collective insurance plan that includes dental and preventive health care, as well as paid vacation and paid sick days.

It employs 10 people and all staff members make a $15 minimum hourly pay, not including tips.

"I love doing my job as a cook, but those benefits they definitely help," said Gervais.

During the pandemic, it kept all staff on part-time rotations so that everyone made 75 per cent of what they were making before the lockdown that hobbled most of Montreal's eateries.

WATCH | Restaurant owner says benefits, fair pay for staff has been priority from the start:

When it comes to retaining staff, Candide is an outlier in food service, says Kaitlin Doucette, of the Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition.

According to a report from the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, 22 per cent of kitchen staff left their jobs during the pandemic due to prolonged closures.

Beyond that, many people working in the food service industry were layed off at one point during the pandemic.

Doucette, who is a sommelier as well as an advocate for restaurant workers, says she wasn't surprised to see the exodus of restaurant staff.

"I'm hoping that seeing the precarity and fragility that workers have had to endure, we realign our priorities as an industry."

During the partial lockdown, Candide stayed open for take-out. 'We were almost built to get through a pandemic,' says owner John Winter Russell.
During the partial lockdown, Candide stayed open for take-out. 'We were almost built to get through a pandemic,' says owner John Winter Russell.(Rowan Kennedy/CBC)

John Winter Russell, co-owner and chef at Candide, says his establishment has built a different business model compared to other restaurants.

With fixed menus, the restaurant has curbed food cost.

"We have six dishes on the menu," Russell said. "We have almost no waste and because of this, we can pass those savings onto employees' wages."

He said it was important for him from the outset to run a restaurant that treats its staff well.

"We had a reflection at Candide before the pandemic hit about making the restaurant environment and the benefits that go with it better than the industry average," said Russell.

"I feel like we've done what was at least necessary to make sure that everyone was happy working here, and everyone wanted to come back to work, and everyone basically was able to hold on to their benefits, part of their salary through the whole pandemic."

In another restaurant, Gabriel Gervais says 'I would work six days a week, 12 hours a day, and be paid 40 hours.'  At Candide, he works four days a week.
In another restaurant, Gabriel Gervais says 'I would work six days a week, 12 hours a day, and be paid 40 hours.' At Candide, he works four days a week.(Rowan Kennedy/CBC )

Martin Vézina, spokesperson for the Quebec Restaurant Association, says raising wages often comes at the cost of profitability.

"It's the customer that will have the last say. Are they ready to pay that kind of price? If they are, it can be maintained that kind of wages and benefits," he said.

"If the customer says it's too costly and we don't want to go to restaurants anymore cause it's too costly, then there will be an impact."

As for Gervais, the line-cook says he couldn't be more excited to be back at work. "I thrive in restaurants, I love people around me. It's really motivating to come and work for someone like John."