Restaurants step up on kitchen staff benefits

by Leo Almazora29 May 2017
Facing an ongoing labour shortage, an increasing number of small restaurant owners are perking up their compensation plans with benefits packages.

Full-time kitchen staff at numerous Toronto restaurants are now receiving some form of benefits package — mostly health and dental, according to the Globe and Mail.

“I’m trying my best to keep my people happy,” Simon Blackwell, owner of Blackbird Baking Company, told the publication. Blackwell is also moving his bakers to a four-day workweek, having them pull 10-hour shifts — a gamble that he hopes will pay off in the form of increased retention.

The lack of qualified candidates is a common lament among chefs. Burnout is a common problem in the industry, with aspiring cooks quitting typically after five or 10 years.

“High staff turnover costs way more than good employee retention,” said Graham Bower, a co-owner at Delica Kitchen. Bower, who told the Globe and Mail that he’s worked in every type of kitchen, said that benefits are more common among larger operations.

According to a spokesperson for lobby group Restaurants Canada, chains typically offer benefits for cooks. Benefits for full-time associates are among the perks touted in job postings for Montana's and East Side Mario's; the Keg is slightly more generous, offering benefits for anyone working over 30 hours a week. Benefits are also a common feature at hotels, most of which are unionized.

Small operators face more risks, with profit margins sliced razor-thin by rising food and rent costs. To manage, they go for more affordable benefits plans. Delica sponsors a $160 per month plan for its employees, which includes prescriptions, dental, medical, disability and life. The plan used by the group that owns Cava, Chabrol and Atlas costs about $135. Both companies cover 70% of the plan, footing a gross amount of $8,063 and $33,600, respectively.

Lorraine Hawley, owner of Mabel’s, gives 28 full-time staff 100% drug coverage, 80% dental, and life insurance, all at $90 a month that she pays for entirely.

Restaurants have the option of paying for all, some, or none of the benefits. Joanna Elis, owner of the Nook Creperie in Ontario, discussed the choice of health plan with her staff, agreeing to have 40% of the cost covered by the restaurant.

Taking a more aggressive tack, Honest Weight owner Victoria Bazan decided to just pay out of her own pocket for her employees’ expenses. “It was more economical to just pay for the staff to go to the dentist and get whatever work needed was done,” Bazan said. “Same goes for glasses once a year and, if anybody is hurt at work and needs physical therapy or massage, I will cover it.”

But the most radical approach was from Emma’s Country Kitchen, where co-owner Rachel Pellett instituted an optional 3% customer surcharge that would go toward the kitchen staff’s benefits. “At the end of the day it will be a really small amount from each customer, but will make a huge impact on our employees’ lives,” she said. “Any surplus at the end of the year will be going to a charitable donation in our community. If there is a deficit, we will cover it out of pocket.”

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