Even the godfather of poutine is having trouble finding staff amid Quebec’s severe labour shortage and booming economy. And he’s turning to his diners to help.
Ashton Leblond is the founder and chief executive of Quebec City region fast-food chain Chez Ashton, a 50-year-old institution venerated for its generous servings of golden French fries topped with cheese curds and brown gravy.
The company this month started applying a 12-per-cent surcharge on food served between midnight and 5 a.m. as a way to increase employee wages, attract staff and keep from closing early. The decision was made after customers told his team they’d be okay with paying more during that time, Mr. Leblond said.
“We are taking a risk doing this but we’ve calculated that it’s worth it,” Mr. Leblond said in an interview, adding that for many clients out in the dead of night, having a poutine is a habit before bed. “They eat and they’re satisfied. It’s almost like a drug fix.”
Ashton’s move highlights the difficult choices facing restaurants, retailers and other businesses as they try to attract and keep employees in a provincial economy now on a tear of 10 straight months of gross domestic product growth, the longest in the 22 years of tracking by Statistics Canada. The situation is particularly acute in the Quebec City region, where a lack of workers is now acting as a drag on business expansion, according to Desjardins Group.
Ashton is by no means the first restaurant chain in history to increase compensation in order to fill jobs without takers. Some have made piece-meal menu adjustments to pricing without publicizing it, said Sylvain Charlebois, a food policy specialist at Dalhousie University. Others, such as Tim Hortons, have taken a different route, choosing to scale back service when they can’t find workers.
What makes Ashton’s move unique is that the company is talking about its decision and linking it to the wider labour shortage problem, Prof. Charlebois said. In that sense, it is trying to strike a new “social contract” with its customers, he said.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Prof. Charlebois said. “The company is basically stating to the marketplace, ‘We need help. And this is food so if you want the convenience of having a poutine in the middle of the night, that’s great but you’re going to have to pay for it.’”
In its own way, Ashton is trying to reframe the conversation around the cost and shortage of labour, Prof. Charlebois said. And introducing another option for consumer-facing companies.
“This is not just about poutine in the middle of the night. This is about the economy. This is about hiring students who need good-paying jobs,” Prof. Charlebois said. “It does set an interesting precedent.”
Quebec’s private sector currently has about 116,000 jobs unfilled, according to the latest published figures by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
With such a labour crunch, businesses of all kinds are resorting to unusual, aggressive and sometimes desperate strategies to maintain staffing, said Simon Gaudreault, the federation’s senior director of national research. Among the tactics being employed by business owners: working longer hours themselves, calling on family members, tapping retirees and increasing automation.
Poultry processing co-operative Exceldor, which owns the rights to Butterball chicken in Canada, set up a remote video system at a Montreal bus stop this fall to do rapid-fire interviews with potential candidates. (A digital screen had a phone attached with a written message above it: “We hire live. Pick up.”) The company needed to fill 120 positions immediately, mostly factory jobs.
“What we’re seeing at Ashton is, in a certain way, creativity to face the situation,” Mr. Gaudreault said. “For sure we’re going to see more and more of this, especially if employers have great difficulty finding the workers they need.”
Finding staff has been a challenge for at least three years, Mr. Leblond said, forcing the company to cut operating hours at several locations. He said he relies heavily at the moment on current employees to recruit family and friends.
The chain already offered a roughly $2-an-hour premium to employees willing to work during the wee hours, but that still wasn’t enough to attract good staff, Mr. Leblond said. Doubling it to $4 an hour will take the starting hourly wage for Ashton’s graveyard shift to $16.50, enough to keep two of its 24 restaurants open during that time, he said.
Mr. Leblond, 72, started with a single snack van in 1969, peddling pogos and ice cream before introducing the region to poutine and offering free samplings to customers unfamiliar with the food. He is considered by Prof. Charlebois and many others to be the patron of poutine because although he didn’t invent it, he is believed to be the first to add it to menus in a systematic way, starting in the 1970s.
“That’s what made poutine really more famous beyond Warwick and Drummondville and rural Quebec,” said Prof. Charlebois, who researched and wrote a forthcoming book on poutine. “The guy was a true entrepreneur and he’s been like that ever since … . For him to do this is absolutely typical.”
NICOLAS VAN PRAET
The Globe and Mail, November 17, 2019