(Crystal Schick photo.)

(Crystal Schick photo.)

Local restauranteurs in Smithers have banded together to address a staffing issue in town

Worker shortage bad for business

Local restauranteurs in Smithers have banded together to address a staffing issue in town.

Restaurant owner Moe Kafer said the currently unofficial restaurant association is seeking a solution to a nation-wide problem on a local scale.

“People are more entrepreneurial and opening more businesses, and less likely to go into a trade … We are at a crisis point. Nobody can keep staff. There’s just not enough to go around,” she said.

According to Kafer, between 15 and 26 kitchen jobs in Smithers have been on the Work BC job board for several months.

“Even after that you just stop putting the jobs up because, you know, nobody’s coming through the doors.”

The restaurant association brought the issue to town council’s attention at a meeting Aug. 14.

“Some restaurants have chosen to cherry-pick hours and they close on long weekends, but we have a massive tourist industry here that needs to be serviced, and everybody likes to go out when they want to go out … ,” Kafer told them in a delegation.

The association believes part of the problem stems from a shortage of housing in Smithers.

“Anybody who’s got staff knows the problem of not being able to put them into housing. There are other communities, such as Golden and Revelstoke, who are also tourist towns and they’re having housing [crises]. One option that was brought up was the [Revelstoke] council found a piece of land and gifted it to the restaurant association, and then the restaurant association found grant money to help build some [staff] housing that everybody could use … Is that a possibility?”

“Those kinds of models I think would be really interesting for council, to see how that worked and how successful it’s been … Identifying what the municipal piece is, what we could offer as a municipality, can sometimes be tricky. So if there are more models out there that would be great information to learn about,” said Mayor Taylor Bachrach.

“I’ve heard in the past from people who have previously been developers of apartment buildings or [multi-unit housing] that one of the dilemmas is the more supportive [or subsidized] housing there is … the less ability there is for the private sector to build housing … I think as one option as well, because we’re pursuing many, would be to try to discuss with some of the apartment building owners. What are the barriers? If we’re hearing that we have the low vacancy rate and there’s a need for housing, what’s getting in the way of people actually building private housing as a part of the solution? I think that’s one piece of it: reaching out to those owners and developers as well as part of the mix of information,” suggested Coun. Gladys Atrill.

“It’s a bit of a capitalist problem,” said Coun. Phil Brienesse.

“We’re a victim of our own success; we do so well that it’s becoming expensive to live here. Have you looked at capitalist solutions? … There is also of course the free market of developers, and any time government suggests giving free handouts for housing they get rather upset too because they say, essentially, ‘How can we compete with that?’ Much the same as if people said, ‘It’s too expensive to buy a hamburger in town, and we decided to subsidize some sort of restaurant.’ Rightfully so, the rest of you would be like, ‘Hey, wait a second, I’m selling hamburgers!’ ”

Kafer said the association will be collaborating with Community Futures to try and become a not-for-profit society.

“One of the things [Community Futures] is looking into is getting a grant to a feasibility study for town so that we then take that to developers, and she said with that feasibility study she could match-make with developers … We are definitely going down that route.”

The association is new, Kafer said, and is still exploring strategies, including changes around culinary apprenticeships and promoting the community to potential employees from out of town. For now, the association wants the community’s support and patience.

“If you have a kid on the sofa, get ‘em off the sofa and send them into one of any of the restaurants and get them working here … When you come in and the restaurant is busy – which we’re immensely grateful for – every one of us is going to be short-staffed. Your meals might take a little longer,” said Kafer.

“Just take it all with a grain of salt, keep supporting us, and think about a job as a cook.”

Editor’s note: This story has been edited from an original version to remove a quote of Moe Kafer’s concerning hours of a local business. That quote contained wrong information. For more see this letter to the editor.