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Labour Shortages & COVID-19: How British Columbia pizza restaurants have been impacted by the pandemic

The past year has been a complete whirlwind for the restaurant industry with most dining rooms closed and regulations changing on a weekly basis across the country. However, the pandemic hasn’t affected all restaurant types the same way.

Many pizzerias and quick-service restaurants that already depended on delivery for a large portion of their sales have been impacted differently. Their challenges haven’t been closing dining rooms, but rather battling the labour shortages caused by the pandemic.

To understand how it’s impacted restaurants throughout the Lower Mainland, I spoke with two of SpeedLine’s busiest customers in the area. Each pizzeria has experienced the pandemic and its impacts in its own way. I spoke with Joel Siemens, the owner of Ricardo’s Pizza in Abbotsford, and co-owner of Ricardo’s in Mission, and Elroy Fernandas, the owner of Captain’s Oven Pizza in Kitsilano.

Ricardo’s Pizza

Is there a specific position or type of position you’ve had difficulty filling?

Elroy: Hiring since the pandemic began has been an absolute nightmare. The main issue isn’t part-time employees, but full-time. I only have students applying, and I cannot afford for them to only work for the summer and then leave again. I like students—they are good workers—but I can’t afford to train them only for the summer.

Skilled workers for full-time positions, like pizzaiolos, are hard to find. They either want to be paid cash under the table (not happening), or they need to be sponsored. Sponsoring costs money, but I do it for a few employees. They stay longer and many places aren’t willing to sponsor them, so I can get them.

Hundreds of people are applying from other countries, but for my last open position, I only had three local applications. If they are already in Canada and need sponsoring I will do it, but I’m not in a position to bring people over.

Joel: We don’t really hire skilled workers. We train whoever we hire. Only a small number of people are trusted with prepping dough, and we might not hire those positions off the street. But they are mostly full-time, and they stay a while.

We also don’t usually hire managers. We mostly bring them up through the ranks. We’ll find someone in school or just finished school that’s already working for us, and see if it’s something they’d be interested in. In fact, my business partner for the Mission location worked for us for 10 years and never found anything else he liked more, so he stayed on and eventually bought in.

What about delivery drivers? Have you had any difficulty hiring them? Are you impacted by drivers working for other third party delivery companies?

Elroy: Delivery drivers are there, but the good ones, again, want cash under the table.

Joel: No, everyone has different methods of payment. We don’t really have any contract drivers like the third parties. We pay hourly plus tips, and so our drivers make far more money than they would, working for them. Some of our drivers do both, and they say they make more by working for us.

What difficulties have you had retaining staff?

Joel: We haven’t had any difficulties keeping staff. It’s been difficult with people having to quarantine and be suddenly short-staffed for two weeks, but it’s been ok.

Elroy: No issue with turnover except what’s been created by us due to letting bad workers go. We are lucky to have three great cashiers right now.

Have you had to raise wages or offer other incentives?

Joel: No not really. Haven’t had any issues.

Elroy: Yes, we’ve had a couple of people demand benefits, but it’s too much money for me. I had one employee leave because I could not afford it. Bigger organizations can afford it, but at an 18-20% profit margin, and small sales, I can’t afford to offer benefits to everybody. And you have to offer them to everyone, not just one or two employees.

Employees get lots of perks, it’s the restaurant industry. They get food, they can take a small pizza home or they can use a 30% discount on larger orders. We’re very flexible with scheduling, we want to try to keep people. Right now, it’s a scramble to the finish—everyone wants to get the best people.

Where do you find good employees?

Joel: We started off really strong at the start of the pandemic, so we’re only really just hiring again now. We don’t get a ton of feedback off Craigslist anymore. Now it’s mostly referrals from employees, their friends and family. We get our best employees that way.

Elroy: If I’m out at the grocery store and I hear someone has experience I will haunt them until they work for me. It’s like hockey, you draft the good people young and train them, and try to keep them. We need to show them it can be a career. Give them an incentive to stay.

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