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Corey Mintz is a Winnipeg-based journalist and author of The Next Supper: The End of Restaurants as We Knew Them, and What Comes After, which was published this week.

Restaurants have been kicked in the teeth for the past 19 months. So perhaps this seems like a strange moment to feel hopeful about the future of the industry. But the potential for change is currently so palpable not despite the pandemic, but because of it. This calamity, terrible though it is, has highlighted long-hidden cracks in the system – wage inequality, the crookedness of tipping, unsafe work environments, the scam of third-party delivery. These problems have finally become as public as they are unpalatable, to restaurant workers as well as diners.

For the first time in a generation, the balance of power has shifted in favour of workers. They have the ability to reshape their profession through collective action – but only if they are able to find enough solidarity to lobby for each other. And diners, suddenly more informed than ever, are able to deliberately support the kind of restaurants that matter – but only if they abandon the deification of chefs along with the trappings and expectations of luxury that were only possible through exploitation.

Let’s start with workers. It’s been a long time – 14 years – since I cooked for a living. But I haven’t forgotten how it feels to be afraid that I will lose my low-paying job, and be unable to pay my rent, if I complain about working conditions. The attitude from employers then – and for many years since – was that if you don’t want to work for a poverty wage (such as a day rate that works out to less than the legal minimum), there’s always someone else waiting to fill your spot.

Except that’s no longer the case.

I’ve stayed in touch with restaurant owners and workers during the pandemic, and it was clear by last winter that many cooks, servers, managers and bartenders were not going to return to their jobs. They had found other work, or gone back to school, or moved in with family to lower the cost of living; in many cases their choices were precipitated by having a physical and mental break for the first time in ages – a break long enough to realize that their working conditions were unacceptable. By the spring, when as many as a quarter of workers didn’t return to their jobs, restaurants scrambled to serve diners with skeleton crews. Economists were mystified as to why, and quick to push a narrative fuelled by fast-food franchise operators that “nobody wants to work any more” – that government assistance had demotivated a previously contented work force.

The “labour shortage” messaging was hogwash. While researching my new book, I spoke with many restaurateurs who have been challenging restaurant orthodoxy through a variety of structures: open-book management, employee ownership, profit-sharing and eliminating tipping. None of those employers have had any problem retaining staff. There was no massive shortage of labourers – only a shortage of employers willing and able to pay and treat workers fairly.

For years, restaurateurs have told me that they’d like to offer staff better pay and benefits. But there was no way to do it, they’d say, without raising prices – which was unthinkable, because it was assumed that customers would revolt. Except that is exactly what owners are doing now. Five years ago, a cook in Toronto had to fight to push past the $14/hour barrier. These days, good luck getting an applicant in the door without offering at least $17. Ontario’s recent increase of the minimum wage, from $14.35 to $15, is not going to lift anyone out of poverty. However, as reported by the International Monetary Fund’s 2021 World Economic Outlook, wage growth has been particularly high in the hospitality, leisure, retail and transportation sectors.

Because of this, more than half of owners say they are raising prices – about 4 per cent this year, according to Restaurants Canada (compared with 2.2 per cent in 2020 and 2.7 per cent in 2019). The hospitality lobbying organization also reports that 81 per cent of independent restaurants took on pandemic-related debt, and 60 per cent of full-service restaurants were operating at a loss (as of July). At the same time, food costs keep rising (beef prices have gone up by 13 per cent, pork 9.5 per cent, cooking oil 21.5 per cent). Expect menu prices to continue nudging upward (and low-profit items to go on hiatus).

This is all within reason. Despite a common complaint that food is too expensive, it has always been too cheap. The menu price is often subsidized by low wages and tipping, which obscures a fifth of our bill under the fantasy that a 20-per-cent gratuity is optional.

Higher wages is a good start. But if the only thing that comes of this moment is that some restaurant workers earn a few more dollars an hour, a much larger opportunity will have been squandered.

Now is the time for hospitality workers to realize their worth and negotiate for what they deserve. The frequent requests are not merely for more money, but two weeks’ notice on scheduling commitments that don’t cut hours at the last minute; for workplace harassment policies with teeth and repercussions for those who violate workers’ rights; and, like workers in any field, for the respect that comes with the acknowledgment that they are not an easily replaceable cog, but skilled professionals of great value to the company.

Every restaurant, and its work force, is unique. The small family restaurant functions differently from the 300-seat full-service franchise, which is different from the 30-seat spot with a trendy chef. In any of these spheres, there are workers with citizenship and language barriers to standing up for their rights. However, most employers are desperate right now. Experienced workers can, if their requests are not taken seriously, walk out and get another job. Demand for their skill and time is too great to have to endure lousy conditions without at least voicing objections.

The good news for diners is that we can play a role in this progress, too.

Prepandemic, I came across as a paranoid conspiracy theorist, with my wild tales about how third-party delivery was a terrible deal for restaurants, how tipping is inherently corrupt, or that the nicer the restaurant, the worse cooks are paid. It was a challenge to convince editors and readers that these things were true. And then COVID-19 sent the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle flying. Very quickly, these topics became part of a mainstream conversation.

Given that it is now clear how inequitable the dining industry can be, we can help. We should become advocates for the kind of restaurants we want to see. No, we are probably not going to nationalize Swiss Chalet, and the majority of restaurants are not going to eliminate tipping any time soon. But we can control our own actions. Let’s become good, conscientious diners. Let’s not be that guest who complains, “Why does this burger cost more than before?” Let’s become ambassadors for the socioeconomic shifts in dining, to buffer employees against the types of diners who feel it’s their right to complain directly to the least-paid, least-empowered members of staff.

Speaking of rights, as long as we are adjusting our expectations, we can let go of the poisonous axiom that the customer is always right. Like the tyrannical celebrity chef, the philosophy of the diners’ needs being pre-eminent – and the abuse it engenders and enables – is an antiquated notion at odds with contemporary attitudes about equity and consent. The cost of a meal does not entitle us to belittle people, or to demand they do more than they agreed to when they showed up for work today.

Perhaps my hopefulness seems naive. But I’ve been a part of the restaurant industry, as an employee, a critic, journalist and observer, for almost 20 years. And this is the first time that the mentality of “we can’t change the way things are” has been challenged on such a grand scale.

At this moment, the most dangerous obstacle to progress is the status quo. There is a natural impulse to return to what we know, even if we know it’s bad for us and unfair for others. That would be the worst outcome for restaurants and their workers – to have gone through all this pain and gained nothing from it.

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