Students have traditionally taken part-time waiter jobs to support themselves through school. But the combination of an uncertain post-secondary job market and a thriving local restaurant scene is resulting in more and more graduates lingering in the food-service industry much longer than anticipated.
Renée Sferrazza is on her feet for about 50 hours a week. She wears leather jazz shoes for her shifts serving at Nota Bene (a polished alternative to less-forgiving dress shoes), and switches to rubber-soled Doc Martens while on the job at Parts & Labour.
“My favourite thing in the world after work is… you know when you take your fist and roll it down the back of your calf? That, and taking off my socks,” she says.
But you won’t hear Sferrazza complain. “I love working,” she says. At 23, she’s already worked nearly 10 years in the food-service industry, starting at a Tim Hortons in Woodbridge at the age of 14, followed by a variety of positions, from serving to bar-backing, in high school and university.
Sferrazza recently completed a Bachelor of Environmental Policy and Urban Development with a certificate in GIS mapping from York University. But transitioning into an office job can be a challenge when your contacts and experience are mostly restaurant-related.
“Finding a professional job in the environmental industry is not really possible right now because a lot of it is unpaid,” she says. “To get hired for a job, sometimes you have to come with a grant so that they can pay you.”
While it may feel like there’s a Subway sandwich shop on every street corner, the majority of food-service workers in the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area—as documented in the 2013 Toronto Labour Force Survey (TLFS)—are employed in full-service establishments: 79,960 people, or 49.7 per cent. And the latest TLFS numbers suggest that workers in their early twenties and the university-educated make up a growing percentage of this group. A decade ago, 17.2 per cent of people who worked in full-service restaurants were between the ages of 20 to 24. That percentage has grown to 25.4 per cent in 2013, making the demographic the largest slice of restaurant employees by a small fraction. (The 25 to 34 group comprises 25.2 per cent, though their numbers have more or less stayed level since 2003.)
BREAKDOWN OF FOOD-SERVICE EMPLOYMENT IN TORONTO, 2013
At The Lakeview Restaurant at Ossington and Dundas, John Vetere manages a staff of about 60. He says most are part-time and the majority are between the ages of 19 and 30.
“Kids who are getting out of university, they don’t have that job lined up to go to,” he says. “We have a lot of them who are still pursuing their careers, yet they need work—so they come and they work in this industry.
“It’s probably more flexible than a lot of industries. That works for a lot of people because they know that they can work this, but still pursue other things.”
Which isn’t to say that it’s easy. Polly D’Arcy, 23, is a full-time server at a King West restaurant. She sees a lot of turnover, especially among those who come into the job with an “anyone can do it” attitude.
“There was a four-month period where it felt like we had new people coming into work almost every day. I saw 10 people come and go and it’s because they don’t care,” says D’Arcy, who has been on the job for a year and has an Art History degree from Concordia.
“The people who have worked at a restaurant for a longer period of time have an idea of good service and want to be good at their job. And then there’s just people who come and go and they’re not interested in it, because it’s not what they want to do for the rest of their lives.”
High turnover appears to be a growing trend. Vetere, who’s worked in the industry for 40 years, says he’s seeing people jump from gig to gig more than ever before.
“I think that’s a direct result of the fact that there’s so much opportunity in the restaurant industry,” he says. “We have a lot of restaurants in the city of Toronto so, because they have more options, they tend to not stay as long.” he says.
ANNUAL AVERAGE EMPLOYMENT GROWTH RATE IN TORONTO, 2003-2013
Switching jobs can also make more money sense. The amount you make in tips can change significantly from season to season—Sferrazza says many servers often switch between restaurants based on their traffic in winter and summer.
A quick scroll through Craigslist shows daily job listings by the dozen—openings for hostesses, bussers, pastry chefs, and $$PART TIME SKILLED COOK$$. In late March, within a few days of each other, Terroni and Luckee, Suser Lee’s latest restaurant, held open calls for servers for their new locations and the Jack Astor’s in St. Lawrence Market held a job fair.
Jenna King, Administrative Operations Manager at Cava Restaurant at Yonge and St. Clair, says they’ve never had any problems finding front-of-house staff, though lately it’s been harder to find people to fill back-of-house positions. A recent opening for a line cook netted fewer than 10 résumés, most with less than six months of experience.
The growth in restaurants in Toronto has given rise to what King believes to be more of an “employees’ market.” Within the last year, Cava has upped its daily rate and King said she’s heard that many other restaurants have done the same to hold onto staff.
Like Vetere, King has also noticed more people jumping from job-to-job than ever before. For the past 15 years, she’s worked in management, but spent the 10 years prior working front-of-house positions like hostess, bartender, and cocktail waitress.
Though she admits to missing “the show that goes on every night,” working in management means no longer having to work late nights, something she appreciates as a mother. (Aside from her, only one other worker at Cava, a part-time server, has kids.)
The long hours and late nights of restaurant work is a concern for the Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity. In partnership with the Martin Prosperity Institute, they released a report in October 2013 on the Toronto CMA entitled, “Untapped Potential: Creating a better future for service workers.”
The study notes that routine-service workers often can’t determine their own schedules and “having a regular daytime schedule allows workers to have sufficient time in the day outside of work for recreation and sleep, as well as spending time with family.” The irregular schedules common to the food-service industry adds a “significant hardship for these workers.”
Dorinda So, one of the lead authors of the report, says there’s also a big concern at the institute about occupational mismatch, or working a job that doesn’t exactly meet your education and skills.
In 2013, 30 per cent of full-service restaurant workers were high-school graduates, an amount that’s stayed more or less the same over the last decade. However, the second largest amount, 19.7 per cent, had university degrees, an amount that’s gone up from 12.8 per cent in 2003.
EDUCATION ATTAINMENT OF FULL-SERVICE RESTAURANT WORKERS
2003 VS. 2013
“We kind of look at this at a macro level across the entire economy. You’re basically creating a situation in which you’re not maximizing your labour potential. As a result, you’re making less money than you could be and that effects the economy,” So says. “And that has a huge effect, especially with Toronto being the largest CMA and with service workers being the largest segment [accounting for 45 per cent of the workforce in the Toronto region].”
Still, for restaurant workers who manage to find steady employment in high-end or high-trafficked restaurants, the money isn’t too bad. Sferrazza rents her own apartment and D’Arcy says she has friends her age working office jobs for less pay.
So says it’s important to consider the long-term effects. “If [someone] starts off in marketing, depending on where you are, it’s notoriously low pay. But in terms of the actual future and in terms of your probable earning potential, that worker may be better off in marketing.”
Among the first members of her family to graduate from university, Sferrazza says her parents are proud of her for building a life for herself.
“I think that they’re just happy that I can pay my bills and I don’t look sad,” she laughs. “I don’t think they really want me to work in this industry forever, which is totally fine. I don’t think I have that goal either—I’m not really sure at this point.”
Chart data sourced from the 2013 Toronto Labour Force Survey.