Why Toronto restaurants can't go back to "normal"

A E Persaud, community organizer, artist and former restaurant worker, shines a light on the industry's underbelly and tells us why we can’t go back to normal.

Toronto restaurant workers | Arianne "A E" Persaud

On their podcast, Behind

"I had a bunch of restaurant worker friends send me videos of themselves talking about what was happening to them from the start of COVID to now — it was so valuable and so many were looking for understanding. Besides having lived that experience myself and having interviewed people for a year, I spent much of that time researching and grounding myself in data. I wanted the podcast to be entertaining and informative. And I also wanted it to be a response to questions like: Where are all the restaurant workers? Will people ever want to go back to this work? Why not?"

On why we can't go back to normal

"Labour was not the first thing to be considered. Restaurant owners took the low road: sub-minimum wages, unstable hours and schedules, making workers rely solely on tips and not sharing tips evenly among staff — especially back-of-house workers. Pre-COVID, there was no incentive to change and there was this quarrel between owners and workers. Employers saw employees as less valuable because they perceived them to be transient, unreliable, young and not worthy."

On the restaurant industry now

"The alternative restaurant model that we want to see is going to have to exist alongside the preexisting model because there's so much investment in the old way. There are servers who still want to have an unshared tip economy and diners who want to maintain the power that they get from tipping even though it's topping up a sub-minimum wage. Alongside that, we are seeing change and growth. A lot of workers are refusing to go back — notice the 'Help Wanted' signs? — that’s the first notable resistance we’ve been able to put up. Why would people go back to an industry that has destroyed them mentally, physically and financially?"

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On what diners can do differently

"Fair wages don’t always mean that the work is good, but, for the most part, it does signify an investment from the employer. There are ways for you to find out what the restaurant pays in terms of wages. Finding out what’s going on with employees at a particular restaurant should be just as important as finding out what the gluten-free situation is or where the seafood and meat come from. Call the restaurant and find out. Do a bit of research."

On reframing the meaning of service

"You are being served by someone, you do not have a servant. You do not have ownership over that person. Also, that person isn’t your friend who invites you over for a dinner party that you don’t have to pay for. There is a transaction happening, and there’s necessary respect that has to happen on both ends, but a server doesn’t have to make you feel like you’re the best fucking thing ever. This feeling that we deserve to feel nice, shouldn't fall on the shoulders of the person delivering stuff to you."

On what the future looks like

"Places that are paying living wages or have employee health spending accounts (Paradise Grapevine, Grape Witches, Burdock Brewery) have no problem retaining staff or hiring them. Better wages equal staff retention which equals a healthier business because you’re not training new employees every week.

I see people making moves with worker-focused groups: Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition, Toronto Restaurant Workers Relief Fund, not 9 to 5, caterToronto. I see restaurant owners who are invested in decent and accessible work, who see themselves as employers, not just as chefs or sommeliers. This is truly motivating because if anybody has to bear the weight of this change, it’s the owners who have the most agency. I think the future is multifaceted and bright.

You can listen to Behind wherever you get your podcasts. For more information on Persaud's work, click here