Food for political thought: restaurant and foodservices deserve to be recognized by feds as an industry in its own right

Many of our challenges could be addressed by simply assigning responsibility for our sector to an assistant deputy minister within a key department such as Industry Canada.

By GARTH WHYTE |
Published: Monday, 10/29/2012 12:00 am EDT

TORONTO—If I were to ask Members of Parliament and Senators for a list of the best restaurants in Ottawa, they could probably come up with one pretty quickly. But if I asked them to name the fourth largest employer in Canada, I bet the answer wouldn’t be so forthcoming.
The restaurant and foodservices industry sees more than $65-billion in annual sales and directly employs more than a million Canadians. That represents about 6.5 per cent of the country’s entire workforce which is more than agriculture, forestry, auto manufacturing, oil and gas extraction, and mining combined.

An additional 250,000 Canadians are also indirectly employed by our industry as suppliers, distributors and consultants. And that doesn’t even include the economic spin-offs that come from the restaurants in our communities. According to Statistics Canada—for every dollar that is spent in a restaurant, another $1.85 is spent in the rest of the economy. That’s more than the retail sector.

Restaurants also give many Canadians their first job. One in five young people between the ages of 15 and 24 work in foodservices and nearly 32 per cent of us have worked in the industry at some point during our lives. We also open doors for new Canadians as they look to establish themselves in this country and gain important employment experience.

It sounds like a cliché, but the restaurant industry is still a business where you can start at the bottom and work your way up to the top. I’ve met prominent independent restaurant owners and chain executives who started their careers washing dishes or bussing tables. A CEO recently told me he gave a franchise to a Canadian who immigrated here several years ago and started out scrubbing pots. 

Good things happen when you work with an industry filled with entrepreneurs. And this will be one of the main messages that our members will be taking to Parliament Hill this week.
As one of Canada’s largest employers and one of the largest contributors to our economy, restaurant and foodservices deserve to be recognized by the federal government as an industry in its own right.

Currently, restaurants are treated as an afterthought in economic, social, health and agri-food policy discussions. For example, despite the fact that restaurants account for over 50 per cent of the jobs in the tourism industry, we are little more than a postscript in Canada’s tourism strategy.

Now—while a minister for Restaurants and Foodservices would be wonderful, many of our challenges could be addressed by simply assigning responsibility for our sector to an assistant deputy minister within a key department such as Industry Canada. This way, someone in the federal government will be looking out for our interests. It would also give restaurants somebody to coordinate with on issues like tax policy, regulation and the recent XL Foods meat recall.
Other matters that our members will be raising in Ottawa include – food tax unfairness, supply management, the growing labour shortage and our commitment to informed dining.

Over the past several years, the grocery industry has introduced thousands of new “heat and eat” products that are virtually identical to what can be found on restaurant menus. The difference is that the grocery products—many of which are processed off-shore—are GST exempt while those prepared in Canadian restaurants are taxed. This is unfair and must be changed.

It is also unfair that frozen pizza manufacturers are allowed to pay for Canadian mozzarella at market prices in the United States. Fresh pizza makers, on the other hand, pay up to 30 per cent more for their mozzarella. Canada needs to level that playing field.

The federal government will also have to address our looming labour shortage. By 2030, we will be scrambling to fill more than 135,000 jobs. The government must continue to reduce barriers and disincentives to work; align immigration policy with demand; and improve programs that will help employers respond to this growing problem.

Finally, our members will be telling MPs and Senators about the comprehensive nutritional information that chain restaurants are making available to their customers. This includes calorie counts, fat and sodium values. We are committed to providing Canadians with the best that nature has to offer.

It is easy to take restaurants for granted, but parliamentarians shouldn’t. We are an industry that brings people together. We touch the lives of Canadians in every part of this country. Restaurants create communities and build neighbourhoods. They are an important part of what makes Canada great.

Garth Whyte is the president and CEO of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association which represents more than 30,000 restaurants, bars, cafeterias, coffee shops, and caterers across the country.

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