Restaurant owners propose policies to battle economic downturn

Calgary restaurant owners gathered at a downtown business Wednesday as Restaurants Canada addressed local industry members on a pre-election campaign aimed at securing policy changes for the sector.

Mark von Schellwitz, vice-president of Western Canada for Restaurants Canada, said for years Alberta led the nation on food services sales growth and employment growth in the industry. But between February 2015 and December 2018, the number of workers employed in the food service and accommodation sector in Alberta dropped by more than 10,000, von Schellwitz said.

“That’s 10,000 people who are no longer earning an income from our businesses, so we think that that’s really sad, never mind the amount of small businesses that have actually gone under,” he told reporters following an event at Blink Restaurant & Bar on 8th Avenue S.W.

“It’s always a difficult business as it is, but the last few years have been particularly a challenge.”

Von Schellwitz said while Calgary was one of the first places in Alberta to feel the impact of the economic downturn, those effects have spread to restaurants in communities across the province, including Edmonton, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat.

Mark von Schellwitz of Restaurants Canada speaks to media in Calgary on Wednesday.

The Restaurants Canada campaign, which was launched Tuesday in Edmonton, includes 16 policy recommendations that the group says would improve conditions for food service businesses, including a youth/training wage and a liquor-serving wage, which von Schellwitz said would help businesses allocate more wages to kitchen staff who don’t earn tips.

The group also wants to see Alberta freeze the minimum wage until other provinces reach $15 an hour, then re-implement the annual minimum wage formula used before 2015. Among other recommendations is a call for Alberta to return to a regular/irregular workday distinction for calculating general holiday pay.

Calgary restauranteur Wayne Leong, who has worked in the industry for more than 30 years, cited the higher minimum wage and increased property taxes as factors squeezing local businesses.

“If you look on 8th Avenue, there has been a lot of businesses that have closed,” he said. “And they’re good operators. Our industry is non-forgiving in terms of making sure we look after our guests, but above and beyond that, when I look out there, in Calgary particularly, there’s been a lot of places that have been around for a long time that can no longer be in business. And not because they didn’t want to operate the restaurant; it’s just that these expenses have gone up so substantially.”

Wayne Leong says restaurants are struggling under the higher minimum wage and rising property taxes.

Restaurants Canada, which represents more than 30,000 food service and hospitality businesses in Canada, said real food service sales, or sales adjusted for menu inflation, should begin to rebound in Alberta this year, but are still expected to remain 3.5 per cent below what the industry reported in 2014.

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney told restaurant owners in Edmonton Tuesday that if elected, his party will consider bringing in changes to reduce the minimum wage for youth and for alcohol servers.

In response to his comments, Premier Rachel Notley accused Kenney Tuesday of looking to make life harder for young minimum-wage workers and those in the service industry if he’s elected.

Alberta has gradually moved toward a $15 minimum wage since the NDP was elected in 2015. The increase from $10.20 was aimed to help reduce poverty and lessen the burden on social support programs, according to the government.

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