The idea of benefits for kitchen staff used to be unheard of, laughable. Health insurance benefits were beyond the expectation of most cooks, just as much as other nice-to-have employment perks, such as Christmas bonuses, overtime pay or liveable wages.
Though the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association doesn't track such data, that seems to be changing. In the face of an ongoing labour shortage in the industry, a growing wave of small restaurants are looking at how they can attract and retain employees, starting with benefits packages.
In Toronto, full-time kitchen staff at Chabrol, Atlas, Cava, Blackbird Baking Co., Mabel's Bakery & Specialty Foods, The Drake Hotel, The Boulevard Club and Delica Kitchen all receive some form of benefits package, most of which consist of medical and dental insurance.
"I'm trying my best to keep my people happy," says Simon Blackwell, owner of Blackbird, who has also moved his bakers from a five-day schedule to a four-day week of 10-hour shifts, allowing for a three-day weekend.
"It's an added cost for the business as I need to employ an extra person, but hopefully it means I keep people with me long term."
Chefs regularly report that they cannot find qualified candidates, and that 75 percent of the interviewees they schedule don't show up. Cooks, complaining of low wages, routinely burn out of the industry after five or 10 years.
"High staff turnover costs way more than good employee retention," says Graham Bower, partner at Delica. He lists training, mistakes and the administrative tasks of paperwork and hiring as pricey investments in every new hire.
"We compared the two costs and the numbers overwhelmingly showed that it was to the business's benefit, and our employees' benefit, to keep them happy, well taken care of and employed here at Delica as long as possible."
Bower says he's worked in every type of kitchen – hotel, casino, chain restaurant, independent fine dining – and it's more common for larger operations to pay benefits.
A spokesperson for lobby group Restaurants Canada says that it's typical for chains to offer benefits for cooks. Though Cara, the parent company of Swiss Chalet, East Side Mario's, Montana's, Milestones, Casey's, Kelsey's and Harvey's, declined to discuss the availability of benefits for cooks within their brands, job postings for Montana's and East Side Mario's advertise benefits for full-time associates. The Keg offers benefits for anyone working over 30 hours a week. It's also common at hotels, which are usually unionized.
For the small operator, profit margins are notoriously thin, with food and rent costs constantly on the rise. But the plans used by some of these small restaurants are not prohibitively expensive. Delica's plan, which includes prescriptions, dental, medical, disability and life, costs $160 a month per employee. The group that owns Cava, Chabrol and Atlas pays a little less, about $135.
Both of these companies cover 70 per cent of the plan, annually costing them $8,063 and $33,600, respectively.
Through her Business Improvement Area, Lorraine Hawley found an insurer that enables her to give 28 full-time staff at Mabel's 100-per-cent drug coverage, 80-per-cent dental and life insurance, for $90 a month, paid entirely by the employer. "I think many other retailers and restaurants just don't realize that there are plans available for people with as little as two employees and imagine it to be much more expensive."
Restaurants have the choice of paying for some, all, or none of this. Any owner who pays for any portion of benefits is gaining a hiring and staff retention advantage over the vast majority of their competitors.
Not everyone goes all in.
At The Nook Creperie in Pembroke, Ont., owner Joanna Els held a staff meeting to let employees choose a health plan, with the restaurant covering 40 per cent of the cost.
After researching benefit plans and weighing the cost against their expected use, Honest Weight (a Toronto seafood retail/restaurant) owner Victoria Bazan decided to simply open her own wallet.
"It was more economical to just pay for the staff to go to the dentist and get whatever work needed was done. I pay for annual cleanings and check ups. Same goes for glasses once a year and, if anybody is hurt at work and needs physical therapy or massage, I will cover it. Getting everyone to actually make the appointments and go to the dentist took some effort."
At busy Toronto brunch restaurant Emma's Country Kitchen, co-owner Rachel Pellett has devised a novel method to pay for employee benefits – a customer surcharge. The menu poses a referendum question to diners: Would you pay an additional 3 per cent for a product or service to see that staff are treated fairly?
"At the end of the day it will be a really small amount from each customer, but will make a huge impact on our employees' lives. Any diner that wishes to opt out will, of course, be able to do so. … Any surplus at the end of the year will be going to a charitable donation in our community. If there is a deficit, we will cover it out of pocket."
Delica's Bower chooses to see the advantages of what some would call tough circumstances.
"Although the labour shortage is frustrating at times, I think it's a good thing in that it's pushed more and more owners to pay a living wage and provide perks like benefits," he says. "With any luck, our profession will benefit from it in the long run, by having cooks stick with it longer-term rather than dropping out after a few years of poverty and ill health."