How to read a Restaurants Canada op-ed in the Calgary Herald (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Readers whose hearts are breaking at Restaurants Canada’s tale of woe supposedly caused by increases in the minimum wage and other calamities can take some Valentine’s Day comfort from the fact that despite all the tears Albertans have been dining out in record numbers.

Last fall’s annual report on the restaurant business in Alberta by ATB Financial took the fact that Albertans had spent record amounts in restaurants and bars the previous summer as evidence of growing consumer confidence in this province.

Mark von Schellwitz of Restaurants Canada (Photo: Twitter).

Citing Statistics Canada figures, ATB’s economists noted in September that food service spending in Alberta set records in both June and July 2018. In July, restaurant receipts in Alberta reached $799 million, one per cent higher than June’s and up 2.7 per cent from July 2017.

Moreover, year over year, the previous 12 months were up nearly 3 per cent compared to the previous 12-month period. This led the ATB economists to predict similar good fortune for the restaurant industry through the rest of last year and into this one.

“For the remainder of 2018, restaurant receipts are expected to hover near record highs,” they wrote.

And while ATB noted that higher fruit and vegetable prices and labour costs meant some restaurant owners “had to cut into their revenues or increase prices to offset these higher expenses … higher priced menu items will do little to dissuade Albertans from eating at their favourite restaurants.”

This is not to say the restaurant business is an easy one, but it’s a far cry from the trail of troubles spun out in a Calgary Herald op-ed piece Tuesday by Mark von Schellwitz, Western Canadian vice-president of the restaurant industry lobby group. And I do mean industry, since the financial backbone of such organizations is international fast-food chains, not the struggling mom-and-pop eatery you might imagine when you read his potboiler in the Calgary Herald.

According to Mr. Schellwitz’s lamentations, “a perfect storm of tax increases and painful policy changes … have worsened conditions for restaurants over the past four years.”

That “perfect storm” line is the key talking point in the Restaurants Canada pre-vote campaign to elect a United Conservative Party government that might be inclined to roll back wages to suit the industry. The campaign was launched on Tuesday in Edmonton and again yesterday in Calgary. You will hear about the perfect storm over and over again in the next few weeks.

Mainstream media news reporters for the most part took the bait hook, line and sinker without much effort to seek any critical balance. Radio announcers on CBC’s drive-home show, for example, could be heard moaning about hard times in the restaurant business yesterday.

Mr. von Schellwitz’s op-ed objection – published to soften up the ground for the Restaurants Canada campaign – was naturally Alberta’s $15-per-hour minimum wage and other legal protections for low-wage working people introduced by the NDP Government of Premier Rachel Notley.

As noted in this space yesterday, the national lobby group would like to see overtime pay and statutory holiday pay protections eliminated and lower minimum wages reintroduced for young workers and liquor servers.

While Mr. von Schellwitz pointed to a real decline in food service jobs in Alberta, his claim the reason is that perfect storm of fairness and regulation is entirely speculative.

Readers will recall that when the $15 minimum wage was first mooted, Alberta restaurant owners warned they would eliminate jobs by replacing fast-food staff with automatic ordering machines. Since then, that technological change, which was coming anyway, has proceeded apace. However, apparently Restaurants Canada has no statistics on how many jobs it has eliminated.

The gloomy claims in the op-ed, like the upbeat assessment of the state of the industry by ATB’s economists, are both based on Statistics Canada numbers. But it’s not difficult to explain their wildly different conclusions.

You can take it from this old newspaper pro that free opinion pieces contributed by special interest groups always cherry pick statistics to build their case. It’s part of your duty as a reader to treat all such contributions with the proverbial pinch of salt.

And it’s part of the duty of respectable newspapers to honour their traditional unwritten contract with their readers: “They pay a dime, and we explain everything.” That includes making it clear that a piece by a lobbyist like Mr. von Schellwitz is not the work of a journalist, as Postmedia failed conspicuously to do on Tuesday.

Like minimum wages and the price of blotto burgers, the price of a newspaper has risen with inflation over the years. This rule applies to the tariff for reading it over the Internet as well.

Do not imagine, though, that Mr. von Schellwitz isn’t an old pro himself when it comes to churning out these kinds of dire predictions. Indeed, he’s been coming up with arguments for why now is not the right time for a minimum wage increase for nigh on 20 years!

“Alberta restaurateurs are not opposed to increasing the minimum wage,” he wrote in 2016 … “It is simply not the right time to do it.”

As it turns out, though, in Mr. von Schellwitz’s estimation, it’s never the right time to raise the minimum wage.

He’s also found time over the years to oppose “smoking bans, parking tolls, and even once expressed dismay that Alberta’s PC government abandoned plans to make it legal for 12 year olds to work in bars and clubs,” Press Progress noted in 2016.

The progressive news site catalogued objections Mr. von Schellwitz trotted out to keep the minimum wage in Alberta and B.C. from rising to $7.60, to $8, to $10, to $10.25, to $13, and to $13.50. These pieces must be pretty easy for him to write by now because, basically, the arguments are always the same, including the inevitable forecast of shuttered restaurants lurking just around the corner.

Restaurants come and go, but fortunately a restaurant apocalypse never seems to materialize. So if you want to take your sweetie out for a nice Valentine’s dinner tonight, you should have no trouble finding a romantic place to dine. Bon Appétit!

Join the Conversation


  1. Interesting article in the Edmonton Journal Oct. 2, 2018 titled: Ups and downs: Restaurant owners split on impact of minimum wage hikes. Some numbers on how many less are employed and discusses changes restaurant owners have made to survive. This topic will be viewed differently depending on your ideology, no doubt about it.

  2. “Now is not the time” is right up there with “Do more with less” and “We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem” as PC era mantras that feel like fingernails on a blackboard for me.

    Almost by definition, the phrase ‘Now is not the time’ is an acknowledgement that the policy in question is a good idea, it just is not practical right now. The question is, would a UCP government actually roll back a policy that even its opponents acknowledge is a good idea, after the restaurants have managed to successfully implement it?

    For Valentine’s Day my sweetie and I will barbecue a couple of steaks. When I bought the meat a few days ago I was shocked to see that the steaks which I thought were about seven or eight dollars are actually closer to $20. Labour costs are not the only thing that is causing the hardship restaurateurs complain about.

  3. Mr. von Schellwitz and Jason Kenney could hunker down in Jason’s mom’s basement boo hooing about overpaid service workers as sympathetic reporters from the Herald and other media outlets relax in deck chairs gulping down fast food takeout, courtesy of Restaurants Canada.

  4. This confirms what I have thought about this issue since 1966!
    How about all those (159 by media count) people with their incredibly high fuel usage vehicles driving from Red Deer to Ottawa? And then there are those of us who would like to see more wind power, solar power, localized geothermal power generation, and other non-fossil fuel burning options, who do not wish to waste more fuel by driving our fuel efficient vehicles to oppose more pipelines (like hybrids, small cars, and even EV’s which would slow the ‘progress’ of the trip substantially having to recharge every 100 to 400 km!), and who do not get covered by the state’s (oil companies’) media outlets. Wonder what David Hughes might have to say about all this?!

  5. Maybe Mr. von Schellwitz should legally change his name to Chicken Little, because it seems in his view, the sky is always falling. I suppose it is a perquisite to convincingly plead poverty in order to get try public support to reduce wages for restaurant staff and by now Mr. von Schellwitz, must have honed his talking points very well after having made this argument so many times. Of course, this is why the industry lobby group pays him the big bucks, exactly how much I don’t know, but I suspect it is no where near minimum wage.

    Yes, the restaurant business is a competitive one and there are always new restaurants opening and old ones closing. Customer tastes are fickle and sometimes change unexpectedly and particularly for independently owned restaurants, there are family and lifestyle considerations that cause people to open and close businesses. If I have noticed anything in the last few years, it is that high end, high profile places have suffered more due to economic challenges in recent years. Corporations are being more careful with spending and individuals are certainly not going out to the more expensive places as much either. This has much more to do with the economy in general than the minimum wage, the free spending years of the oil boom are long past. Understandably people are reluctant to spend say $150 on a meal. If the minimum wage was lower and that meal was only say $140 or $135, would that make a difference? I doubt it.

    These days more fast/casual dining is apparently in, partly because younger people have less to spend and because it appeals to them for other reasons. We see a number of new restaurants opening that try to appeal to this and some existing ones changing their format around. Of course, places like McDonalds seem to be introducing more pay kiosks due to improving technology. Personally, I hate and avoid them, but they must be hopeful they can get enough people to use them to save money. I suppose it is another example of automation, which is also a bigger general trend.

    I don’t think the sky is falling, but times are changing. The economy is no longer in a boom in Alberta and I think anyone who claims it will magically come back any time soon by reducing regulation or cutting taxes for the wealthy, is highly delusional or deceptive. There are changing tastes particularly to lower cost and more convenient restaurants and some automation is happening. As always, the restaurants that can successfully navigate all of this will do well. Those that just whine about the minimum wage will not be.

  6. Now I’m here to tell you about being at the bottom of a ladder that’s being hauled up to avoid some consequence! What these wage mandates mean to real people like me? Why I’d say it’s the difference between rent and homelessness! All right then! You vicious right wingers want suffering? Well just keep pounding on with your stupidity! You’ll get what you came for!

  7. I read somewhere that the so-called “youth vote” took a conspicuously anomalous hop in the last federal election, around an 18 percentage-point increase, if I remember rightly. My theory at the time was that, for the first time, there was a remarkable appeal to tactical—or “strategic”—voting, facilitated by the internet where a number of sites educated how to do it, and the very cohort most comfortable with the internet took advantage of not having to deal with anyone in person they didn’t want to, or commit to any party. The strategy, of course, was to defeat the HarperCons—which might have figured, as well. The results were something for young voters to be proud of, and I’ll bet the experience will have initiated these voters to the regular electorate, many having been first-time voters.

    But some other anomalies suggested to me that, probably due to their inexperience, these novice ballot-benders might have mistaken national polling numbers for local (which aren’t as easy to get or discern), thus not picking the candidate most likely to beat the Conservative and resulting in a misintended “Anybody-but-Harper” bandwagon effect that rewarded the Adonis and deprived “Angry Tom.” Most of these kids probably didn’t even notice. Why worry? The job got done, their voices were “heard”—or so we should hope: they might continue to believe and stay a part of the voting electorate. But maybe they were gonna vote Liberal, anyways.

    Not sure that the upcoming Alberta election equates with any federal one, or that there’s an “Anybody-But…” sentiment, but if it were the only impression the Alberta NDP left on the sensibilities of voters there, the fact that it upset a 43 year-long Conservative dynasty in a long-reputed right-wing province would, I think, contribute to wider interest in electoral politics among young voters, maybe even inspiring some to vote for the first time—not because they’ve been proselytized by the NDP but, rather, that they’ve seen the mighty felled by the meek. It’s encouraging from their point of view.

    Given that the majority of restaurant workers are members of this youthful age-cohort, for many their first job, I should think UCP threats to roll back the minimum wage would be a potent voter motivator. Certainly there’s no love lost between the white-hatted SoCon leader and high school students whose free time he’s preparing to get all up in by legally requiring teachers to inform their parents of their social acquaintances —if, that is, his party wins the election. But he’s not courting the young voter to whom few politicians have ever given much thought precisely because traditionally they often don’t bother to vote.

    But these kids is whip smart with them tally-whacker phones they all got nowadays, doing what they all good at: talking to each other in and out of school, at home and in between. Not saying they’ve suddenly become constitutional experts or joined a political party, or that GSA rat-lines and minimum wages are necessarily tinder drying for a lightning strike from them but, if it is, then their interconnectedness in ways even tech savvy adults can hardly grasp—let alone SoCon Redoubters riding buckboards back to the last century—is more than just ignition, it’s rocket fuel that just might achieve a kind of surprising, young-voter lift-off like it did in the last federal election. Most of these kids were too young to vote in the last Alberta election. It’s got cool-rush potential. That’s something neither big party cultivates much—prob’ly cuz they look stupid and uncool like parents trying to look cool. Uncool is waaaaaay not cool.

    Granted, tactical voting isn’t nearly as opportune in this nearly two-way race as it was in the three~or four-way (Quebec) federal campaign so the attraction of sniggering mischief or electoral tagging is likely much less in Alberta, but if minimum wages and after-school surveillance have gotten even a few young voters’ attention, then a fashionable “Anybody-But-Jason KeKKenney” fad could flare up outta “nowhere”. The real threat to the UCP is negative in that JKKK looks oblivious of the potential —would he be threatening wage rollbacks that disproportionately hurt young voters or offering the fist of authority over student-organized GSAs if he did take them seriously in the electoral sense?

    The other factor is positive: Rachel Notley probably does appreciate the youth vote potential. Would she have defended GSAs and raised the minimum wage—in addition to boring old adequate funding of schools and universities to train for the diversified economy her party has envisioned (instead of slashing school funding and funneling public money back into the one-horse goo industry that young citizens should be—and are—hip to) if she didn’t?

    My only concern was hinted above: I don’t think most young voters like partisan politics that much, don’t really want to commit to meetings or rallies or volunteering so that politicians vying for their votes need to lighten up on partisan rhetoric and ‘ancient’ rivalry standoffs and focus on what young voters do: purely the issues that affect their new kind of lives and standards (new, at least, for geezers like me). What they seemed to like in the last federal election was the opportunity to make a difference, claim it as their own and revel in the coolness of it—without being scared off with agist condescension or demands for partisan commitment. If they can’t live for the day, whether at a fast food McJob or social clubs on there own terms, they vanish back into the ghostly blue rectangle where they can—it’s where their friends are. And “friends” means “socus” in Latin.

    Let’s just hope the socialist partisan don’t get too presumptuously chummy on cheap etymology. These young, first-time voters need to do it at least once before they’re even close to ready to show how their tech savvy can be committed to anything remotely partisan.

    The first vote has to be for themselves and their friends. If they feel rewarded, they might do it again, especially if they did it the first time, again, with their chat buddies—or whatever the heck they call them. They talk about their own lives, and that’s stuff like their jobs and their social life.

    The UCP seems not to worry about young voters’ reaction to a number of his youth-unfriendly policies. That’s interesting—for geezers like me.

  8. Ah yes, the classic Doom, Gloom & Disaster message. I’ve heard the average non-chain restaurant stays in business about 3 years. I wonder what the turnover rate is now that produce and–gasp–wages, too, have gone up. How ironic if the rising minimum wage has made it EASIER for restaurant owners to stay in business! People with more money in their pockets might do dinner and a movie, do you think? What would Mr. von Schellwitz’s message be worth then?

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