Restaurant owners across Atlantic Canada are excited about the upcoming summer season as COVID-19 restrictions lift in most areas and people slowly become more confident about spending time out of their homes.
That's according to Luc Erjavec, the vice-president of the Atlantic region for Restaurants Canada.
Even though Canada's currently in a sixth wave of COVID-19, Erjavec tells The Todd Veinotte Show that the lifting of restrictions in most of Atlantic Canada has been a great change.
"It really has been a breath of fresh air," Erjavec says. "People are anxious to go out, there's some pent-up demand, so business has been relatively strong. Still soft during the lunchtime trade because many people are still working from home or at flex hours. As well, some people still have some concern about going out or maybe being in confined places."
Still, Erjavec says sales have been "quite good," adding that it's expected the food service industry will return to 2019 levels later this year.
"We're very optimistic that it's going to be a fantastic summer across the province, across Atlantic Canada," he says. "We're just trying to get ready to be prepared to continue to serve customers throughout the region; the 1.8 million times a day that we serve them, we're going to be ready."
In the previous COVID-19 wave, Erjavec says it was difficult for operators to staff their restaurants as many people were off work due to being sick with the virus as well as self-isolating requirements.
With the current wave of COVID-19, he says staffing shortages might be a problem that continues this year.
According to Statistics Canada's latest data, the food services industry had around 7,000 job vacancies in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador in Q4 of 2021.
Nova Scotia had more than 3,100 vacancies, marking it the highest number of vacancies in the past four prior quarters.
"There's a shortage of workers, and we're just going to have to work harder to try and attract people to our industry," Erjavec says. "We're happy to see that government is promoting immigration and has loosened some of the restrictions on immigration."
Erjavec says it's important for operators to be competitive in attracting employees and making their businesses the employer of choice for workers.
He adds that it's a balancing act for restaurant operators to try and turn a profit while handing the fact that consumers are only willing to spend so much money.
One move that Erjavec says he's happy to see is Premier Tim Houston's decision to extend the Paid Sick Leave Program until May 7, a program that was originally set to end on March 31.
Announced on April 11, that extension means sick days between April 1 and May 7 may be eligible for reimbursement.
In fact, eligible businesses that pay their employees for taking sick leave could be reimbursed as quickly as five business days from applying for the funds.
Erjavec hopes some consistency and stability in the industry will help attract former staff to return to food service.
"I can't blame staff for leaving when you never knew if your job would be available next week because your restaurant might be closed or not," he says. "It is a challenge. It will be a challenge because of demographic issues in Nova Scotia and Canada as a whole, but we're up to the task."
Despite Canada being in another wave of COVID-19, Erjavec says he thinks it will be hard for governments to step back and return to implementing heavy mandates and restrictions.
"I think it would be very hard to step back to where we were a year or two years ago," Erjavec says. "At some point, we have to get beyond COVID and normalize it, like any other disease."