For Donna Chevrier, owner of Ola Cocina and small store-next-door Ola Comida, the rollercoaster ride started just before COVID-19 hit when her brightly coloured Vanier shop was vandalized, smashed to bits in the middle of the night. But clients and colleagues in the food industry rallied, and a GoFundMe campaign raised enough money to keep the doors open and repair the damage. Then COVID-19 hit. “I’ve flown by the seat of my pants my whole life,” says Chevrier. “This was just one more thing.”
In some ways, Chevrier found herself in a better position than many of her contemporaries. “I had a store set up already, and my rent is low. Having a good conversation with your landlord is paramount,” she explains.
“For me, the hardest thing at the beginning was the emotional adjustment. You’re no longer putting food out on a plate, making it beautiful, building community. You’re simply handing over a bag of food and saying, ‘Here you go.’ The whole takeout thing for me was hard. As was handling the emotional adjustment this change brought for staff.”
Now the difficult thing is getting staff at all. The Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) has created a huge disincentive, and many restaurants are finding it impossible to get anyone to work.
This spring Chevrier experienced a wake-up call in terms of her own health. She underwent two surgeries in the span of two months and was told not to work at all. Nonetheless, when she lost key staff, she made it to Ola Cocina on a mobility scooter.
“How do you motivate low-income employees?” she asks. “Put pot shops on every corner and give them free money? Duh. That doesn’t work. People have got a taste for quality of life while not working. And they’ve decided to move into that work-life balance. Me included. Nobody wants to go back to that rat race of working 12 hours a day.”
Data across many industries and workplaces show that people don’t want to go back to “normal.” This is especially pronounced in the restaurant business, where wages and work conditions have often been found wanting. Despite increasing wages, Chevrier continues to struggle to find staff. And this is a further stress on restaurant owners: not only are they running a business, often cooking in that business too, but now they need to offer emotional support to their employees. There are no human resource departments in small restaurants.
“I was old-school,” says Chevrier. “I just expected people to work until the job was done. But that’s changed for all of us.”