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Navigating Labour During COVID-19: How The Charcoal Group is Keeping Staff Engaged and Motivated

All photos by @liannesnowphoto and @only1andywright

As restaurants across Canada begin to contemplate their reopening and recovery, a new challenge is taking the spotlight: staffing and labour.

As restaurants closed their doors and were required to lay off staff, upon reopen, operators anticipate difficulty in regaining their workforce. Not only may recruiting be an issue, but as we all work together to navigate this ‘next normal, ensuring a healthy workforce – mentally and physically, is of utmost importance.

On March 16th, one day before the Ontario provincial government restaurants shut down dine-in operations, The Charcoal Group made the difficult choice to help curb the spread of COVID-19 by temporarily closing the doors to a number of their restaurants. To date, their Moose Winooski’s location in Kitchener has been offering delivery for approximately 6 weeks.

The Charcoal Group incorporates a number of restaurants across Ontario including: Beertown, Sociable, The Bauer Kitchen, Wildcraft, and Charcoal Steakhouse. Restaurants Canada estimates that 800,000 foodservice jobs have been lost across Canada, and unfortunately, as The Charcoal Group needed to close operations, many of their staff were left without a job.

The challenge was to ensure that upon reopening, they would be able to hit the ground running, with a productive, healthy, fully-staffed team.

Charcoal made the decision to keep all salaried managers and headquarters team members on the payroll throughout the closure. “While this has been a major investment, Charcoal sees the value in supporting team members, training/advancing skills and moving its systems, standards and menus forward,” says Jody Palubiski, CEO of Charcoal Group.

“Our team is everything,” explains Jody. “This is the year that this team was recognized as ‘The Best Independent Restaurateur in Canada’ by Foodservice & Hospitality’s Pinnacle Awards. Our ability to come out of the pandemic and regain as much of the momentum that we went in with – is largely dependent on our ability to have this team come back together and lead the way.”

Beertown location exterior

Aside from keeping on salaried managers and headquarters team members, one key strategy for Charcoal was to guarantee that all staff felt supported and part of the ‘family’. For Charcoal this not only meant providing regular updates on provincial and federal government programs to help them during this time, but also making certain that staff were able to access mental health resources.

Each restaurant team member, managers, general managers and even the team at headquarters get a personal call every week from their superior to check in on how they are doing and what they are up to. Charcoal leverages tools like HotSchedules and Zoom to keep in close contact with staff members. Delivering essential information like at-home workouts, where to find online mental health support, and financial advice helped to make certain that staff did not feel isolated.

Charcoal took this opportunity to provide education and training for staff. “For our management who remain actively working, we have focused on leadership development so that we have a more engaged and skilled leadership team coming out of this,” explains Jody. He continues, “Our Chefs have been working on menu and feature development, they have been offered resources and done research, testing, and planning for the coming months post-reopen and for our team members on leave, we have extended learning and accreditation opportunities like: Cicerone Certified Beer Server Training, Cicerone Beer Styles Challenge, Smart Serve Certification, Bar Smarts Certification in partnership with Pernod Ricard, and Wine & Spirit Education Trust Level 1 Spirits Training.

Jody and the Charcoal team expects that this training will be a big part of the success they see upon reopening. “When we host these leadership training seminars during normal operations, we schedule our managers out of daily operations for these sessions,” says Jody. “Using this time now allows us to have a greater focus on in-restaurant operations, with a higher degree of knowledge/skill when we get back to it.”

Jody states: “We are aiming to have the most engaged, driven & effective team of leaders we have ever had coming out of this pandemic. We also hope to inspire members of our hourly team to step up into leadership roles as well. We have already had a few members express interest in doing so.”

Beertown team members pre-COVID closures

Jody illustrates the positive feedback and results they’ve seen from their initiatives: “Team members have become engaged in our support for the team – we are doing it for them, but they have responded by further supporting each other and are also supporting us as their leaders. It’s become an all-around spiral of support for everyone to everyone.”

“Messages are coming in from all avenues: social media, email, phone calls, HotSchedule – all very positive and thankful. We haven’t received a single negative message.” In fact, Jody explains that : “In our weekly calls, it is becoming more and more evident that our team is itching to get back to work.”

Going back to work, Jody and the Charcoal team understands that there may be a challenge in having enough staff to fulfill demand. “We will alter shifts and roles as needed, so that coming back to work is the attractive option financially – no one should be ‘worse off’ than being on government benefits.” The team anticipates that they will need to increase clear and concise communication and reinforce that that leadership needs to practice empathy in their operations.

Like all foodservice brands and teams, Charcoal wants to get our team back as quickly as possible and by keeping them engaged now, the hope is that this will help them to get people back to work faster.


  1. We are proud of the positive attitude shown by the leadership and staff. I am sure the group will come out of this pandemic even stronger. We have alway enjoyed the customer oriented atmosphere and welcoming feeling by all staff. Keep up the good work. FG

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