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People dine at a restaurant in Vancouver, on May 31, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Stephen Beckta is the owner and operator of the Ottawa-based Beckta Restaurant Group.

My first restaurant family took me in when I was just 14, and I still remember how it made me feel like part of something amazing. I found a sense of purpose and caring that I hadn’t known with my biological family at home. I worked with a team of professionals who cared deeply for their guests – but more importantly, for one another. I revelled in the amazing sense of gratification that comes from making someone in front of you happy through the joys of food and drink. My need for that gratification has never gone away. I suspect that’s the case for most people who have experienced our industry from the inside.

When a restaurant dinner service goes great, it feels like a beautifully choreographed ballet. Each member of the team – from chef to dishwasher, host to server – plays a vital role in that evening’s performance. Each dance and dancer is special; when everything goes right, it’s truly magic. And then you do it all over again the next day.

Those performances have skipped and halted too many times over the past 16 months. There have been too many restaurants closing and not enough reopenings. Governments have treated our team members’ special abilities as “non-essential” – even though it’s obvious they are essential to society, to our communities and especially to restaurant families who have struggled in so many ways. This has required restaurants to pivot – navigating the unique issues and costs of offering takeout menus, providing finish-at-home meal kits, creating tiny, makeshift patios, expanding into the realm of grocery or liquor stores – anything to stay alive and keep as many of our industry members as employed and engaged as possible.

Here in Canada, we appear to be emerging from the third (and hopefully final) wave of COVID-19. Vaccine coverage here is as high as anywhere in the world. As of Friday, Ontario restaurants will be able to open their doors again for indoor dining – the last jurisdiction in the country to do so. The problem is that many restaurants can’t fully reopen, not really, because so many of their talented and caring staff have left the industry completely. And who can blame them? According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, humans need food and shelter most fundamentally, with safety and security next on the list. In the thick of a pandemic, belonging and a sense of accomplishment at work just weren’t as important as paying the rent.

The three restaurants that comprise our group – Beckta, Play and Gezellig – had welcomed guests for dinner seven nights a week, in addition to five to seven weekly lunch or brunch offerings, before the pandemic took all that away. And while we invested heavily in our core team – scheduling them for many more hours than necessary for the takeout sales we were doing, just to keep them part of our restaurant family – multiple lockdowns took their toll. We now only have enough staff to open roughly half the time, even with restrictions lifted. In order to get back to our normal staffing levels, we will need to add 40 per cent more team members to our roster.

So while things are starting to feel normal, please be patient. Restaurants are trying really hard to return to what we used to be able to offer guests, but many businesses need a lot more people than they currently have. We need time to develop the next generation of hospitality professionals so the industry can truly recover.

But the good news is that the chance to move up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – to create that sense of belonging and accomplishment as a restaurant family – is finally possible again.

So, restaurant professionals: Please come back to practise your art by playing your pivotal part in that glorious ballet. The world needs you – and the magic you can create – now more than ever.

We know what you have been through during this pandemic: the repeated layoffs, the real safety concerns, the awkward physical distancing, the uncertainty, the plating of beautiful food in cardboard instead of on plates.

But inspired, in-person dining can never be replaced in our society. That work is, in fact, essential – it gives us places to be nourished and restored physically and emotionally, to share stories and create new ones. And by sharing your special gifts, restaurants will rise again.

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