Fire, sear, plate, wipe. Greet, water, order, pick up. Chop, whisk, wash, polish. Eating out may be relaxing for diners, but those who work in the hospitality industry know it involves stress, precision, noise, and stamina to create a perfect experience in the dining room. In 2023, it seems as if this pressure cooker has been intensified with changing work-life expectations and rising costs, not to mention an ice storm, wildfire smoke, and heavy rain.
Across Montreal, several restaurants are redefining what it means to work in hospitality, striving to encourage staff wellbeing, nourish creativity, and strengthen resilience in the face of constant change.
To start, “it’s no longer a flex to work your ass off at the detriment of your health,” says Jon Cercone, sommelier and one of the owners of Taverne sur le Square. In 2020, the Taverne limited their opening hours from Monday to Friday to protect their staff. It turned out that Mondays had a better profit margin than even Saturday, and they have since kept these shorter hours.
This also meant that they could close on weekends, leading to opportunities for the restaurant to do private events, and for staff to take the weekend off, something which used to be unheard of in the industry. For Jon, he was able to further share his passion for wine as a private consultant under the name Brommelier.
At Foxy, they recognized that the standard of working 60 hours or more every week was not sustainable physically or mentally. The chef Catherine Couvet had a vision for the kitchen to work four days a week, creating a rotation where the restaurant is now only open from Monday to Saturday.
“COVID has cracked a lot open and that’s good,” explains Dyan Solomon, co-owner of Foxy. In addition to a shorter work week, salaries for the kitchen staff at Foxy have been increased by 30%. “A more equal pay across the team really changed something for us all. You have to get on board or get out, it’s the only way to find good staff and keep them.”
Further west down Notre-Dame street, at Saint-Henri’s Tuck Shop, Director of Operations Jonathan Metcalfe explains that they have worked hard to change their culture, and recognize both the front and back of house staff as highly skilled professionals. This means committing to a four-day work week, researching how to introduce health insurance, and protecting workers’ rights such as maternity/paternity leave and overtime pay, which have been historically underrepresented in the hospitality industry.
Across the city at Larrys, manager Tsatsu Gbedemah reflects on how a good job is no longer just the numbers on a pay stub, but also the ability to live life outside of work, and as someone with a chronic illness, to take time off for medical appointments. “How do we bring notions of care and humanity into the restaurant space? I want to rethink hospitality, and talk about what it means beyond something transactional.”
This is especially pertinent as Larrys (and its sister restaurant Lawrence) moved to a no-tipping policy in 2021. This allowed them to raise the hourly pay above the minimum that restaurants usually offer, and give staff in both front and back of house more stable pay.
“A more equal pay across the team really changed something for us all. You have to get on board or get out, it’s the only way to find good staff and keep them.” – Dyan Solomon, Foxy
Combined with a dedication to local and sustainable suppliers, eliminating tips has necessarily meant an increase in prices at Larrys. At Foxy, they also have had to raise their prices to keep their suppliers, pay staff well, and in turn serve clients well. Dyan explains that while there was some resistance from the public, “The true cost of eating out should’ve been more expensive a long time ago. Underpaying people propelled our industry and gave everyone a false sense of things, when people should have been earning a living wage.”
On a quiet street in Outremont, sommelière Lindsay Brennan and Chef Juan Lopez Luna opened the elegant restaurant Alma in 2018, and next door, a wine and tapas bar called Tinc Set in 2021. While the two restaurants are distinct concepts, they operate together, giving their team the opportunity for growth and to develop diverse skills, something that is important in an often repetitive job environment.
Both restaurants have been an exercise in constantly adapting to change. When dining rooms reopened in Quebec, they made the seating at Alma more spacious, reducing their indoor capacity by over 25% to adapt to new levels of social comfort. The same year, they introduced a Menu Carte Blanche, where diners experience 9 courses that change with the seasons.
When making the reservation, diners are asked to pay up front for the menu portion of the dinner, and a 18% gratuity is included. In 2023, the couple added the option of a 5-course menu at Alma, without prepayment, choosing to adapt yet again.
And the community has embraced these changes, with reservations at Alma often filling up in advance. When diners prepay, it assures staff they will earn a minimum level during their shift, and also allows the kitchen to better plan and minimize waste.
Back at Tuck Shop, Jonathan’s day starts with checking the floor plan and reservations. For him, it is both a game of Tetris and something that reminds him of why he loves the industry: each reservation is a chance to welcome people into the “home” that the restaurant team has created. However, the game has levelled up with a new challenge: extreme weather.
Storms have previously skirted around their restaurant in the Sud-Ouest borough, but the climate crisis has brought torrential rain this year. First they covered their terrasse, then added tarps as a backup. Still, it’s been impossible to invest enough infrastructure against storms that have brought more rainfall than Montreal has seen in decades.
So now, in between updating menus, briefing staff, and serving clients, Jonathan has become an expert at predicting the weather, checking multiple weather apps regularly.
Restaurants are places of constant motion, and with all of the challenges in the past few years, it is remarkable that there continues to be hope and ambition to make the industry one where people can build lasting careers, as well as communities and families outside of work. Where hospitality was once, ironically, an inhospitable place for people to work, bold changes are happening in Montreal to change that culture.
For Jonathan at Tuck Shop, he dreams about a future where “core employees can be part of a cooperatively owned restaurant.” For Tsatsu at Larrys, he thinks about how restaurants would feel, sound, and taste like if there were staff from more diverse backgrounds, each bringing with them something that broadens the meaning of hospitality.
In the meantime, workers continue to cook, serve, wash, and repeat at restaurants across the city. Thinking back on the past few years, Lindsay of Tinc Set and Alma says that even while striving to do better, “you can’t force things, and I have learned to embrace the way life changes.”
Throw your support behind these chefs, their restaurants, and hard-working and dedicated staff by booking a same-day reservation with DINR.