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When I was graduating from university in 1989, economist jobs were scarce. There was a joke at that time: What's the first question an econ grad asked on his first day of work? Answer: "Would you like fries or salad with that?" And no joke, I ended up asking that question myself when, for about half a year, I waited on tables at a popular restaurant chain in 1990.

Twenty-three years later, memories of my short career in the food industry came flooding back. This week, I was an economic observer at the National Restaurant Association's convention in Chicago. This is the world's largest trade show for restaurant owners, 2.67 million square feet of the latest trends in light-up menus, dry-ice demonstrations and snazzy pizza ovens.

In Canada, the food and beverage industry isn't big business – it's enormous. According to Statistics Canada, the country's restaurants and bars racked up nearly $53-billion in receipts in the past 12 months. They employ nearly one million workers. And when you count all of the peripheral economic activity associated with eating and drinking – the tourism benefits, the wholesale and retail food sales, the real estate rental activity – the food industry is one of the largest economic sectors.

One of the indicators I regularly track is restaurant and bar receipts because it represents a specific component of consumer activity: discretionary spending. In good times, when jobs are plentiful and incomes are healthy, discretionary spending rises. But when consumers feel anxious about their future income prospects, often the first things to go are dining out and nights at the pub. It's a classic canary in the coal mine.

Aside from the restaurant and bar industry's provision of an excellent economic indicator, there is another reason why it is worth some promotion and attention: It's the sector through which millions of Canadians first enter the labour market.

Only a minority of Canadians has ever worked in oil and gas, or even manufacturing. Probably fewer still have worked in agriculture. Banking and finance may rank a bit more favourably, given the many part-time bank tellers. I haven't been able to find statistics on this, but through informal surveys of acquaintances, my guess is that well over half of Canadian adults have at one time or other worked in the retail food, restaurant or bar industry.

They may have waited on tables, as I did. Or sold hot dogs and cotton candy at a summer fair. They may have worked as a dish washer or short-order cook. The food industry provides great summer jobs for high-school and postsecondary students. For many, the food industry is the first point of entry into the labour market.

Some people remain in the food industry and go on to great careers as owners, chefs and front-of-house managers. Careers in the restaurant and bar sector can be quite lucrative if you have the right training and skills. And with all the celebrity chefs and reality TV shows focused on the restaurant world, the industry has some major mojo going on. Chefs are cool.

Most of us who work in the food service industry, however, go on to careers in other sectors. But the skills we picked up through those work experiences remain valuable. Learning to work in teams, managing stressful situations, remembering that the woman in the red dress wanted no mayo, appeasing the angry guy whose steak was overdone – all of these attributes are transferable to other industries. Without them, workers in every other industry would contribute less to their daily jobs.

Despite its contribution to the gross domestic product, the restaurant and bar industry remains underappreciated and often ignored. But when we consider the role it plays in the working lives of so many Canadians – the first paycheques we earned, the skills we learned, the stresses we managed – we would be silly to ignore it. It's the foundation on which much of the labour force is built.

Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.

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