Longing for better wages and benefits in the restaurant industry

Photo of Nicli Dining Room by N Wong

Mew Sri-Ha-Raj is a 23-year-old retail worker who sometimes works for her dad’s catering company, Flavour in Films, on sets around Metro Vancouver.

Sri-Ha-Raj enjoys the work. She enthusiastically talks about the wages she makes. For her, working three days with her dad generated as much income as four weeks of work at her regular job. Sri-Ha-Raj’s enthusiastic tone changes a little when she talks about working the set for a life-long term.

Although she loves the fast-paced nature of catering, and the fact that she’s doing what she loves and what she went to school for, her body can not handle it. In the three days she worked with her dad, Sri-Ha-Raj got little sleep. The days are long.

According to Sri-Ha-Raj, she was up around 5 a.m. to go to the warehouse where she, her dad and his employees get everything ready for the day. Then they travel for an hour to the set they’re scheduled to be at, where they work until the set closes, about 10 hours later. After the set closes, Sri-Ha-Raj makes her way back, in traffic, to the warehouse where the crew preps for the next day. By the time Sri-Ha-Raj and her dad get home it’s already 9 p.m.

As a  graduate of the Vancouver Community College (VCC) Culinary Arts program, why doesn’t Sri-Ha-Raj fulfill her dream of being a chef in the typical restaurant industry if her body can’t handle film set catering? The way she sees it, it’s not a feasible option. The pay isn’t great and there aren’t any benefits, which she gets at her current job.

Typically, restaurants don’t have unions, and sometimes managerial staff doesn’t support their employees, unlike catering for sets.

Sri-Ha-Raj’s unwillingness to work in the restaurant industry because of low wages and lack of benefits is supported by Mike Bottiglieri, who, after 13 years, left the restaurant industry.

Bottiglieri, somewhere in his 30s, is a self-proclaimed home chef who left the restaurant industry for a job in retail because the pay is better and he gets benefits now. He shares a story about an ultimatum he had to give his boss: either Bottiglieri quit in two weeks or he got a raise. His boss chose the latter.

Bottiglieri is also a gradate from VCC’s Culinary Arts program. He loved working in the restaurant industry, saying it’s a fun a atmosphere to work in and that there is a sense of pride when you plate a dish that looks good and is cooked to perfection. He doesn’t fail to mention the tips. “The tips are always nice,” he says.

Bottiglieri does say that working in restaurant’s is high-stress. The hours are long and you don’t get a lot of days to yourself. Bottiglieri says, in some cases, there is a bit of a alcohol and drug problem. He’s “walked into customers doing rails of coke in the bathroom” and has “seen cooks way past drunk by noon.”  According to Bottiglieri, drugs and alcohol aren’t so bad at family restaurants, but at bars and pubs it can get worse.

He does say it’s great when you get into a restaurant that’s super supportive, because everyone who works in the industry know’s how hard it can be. Unfortunately, he knows a lot of people in different positions within the restaurant industry who “jump from place to place due to being unhappy.”

In Bottiglieri’s experience, management tends to “favour the ones they find pretty or ones they buddy up to.” Despite the restaurant industry being “very cutthroat,” Bottiglieri would still be there if his current job didn’t pay so well and didn’t give him benefits.

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