Occupations in the food service sector

The restaurant, quick service, and catering industry includes a diverse range of employment opportunities for newcomers. However, hours may be long and variable, the work challenging, and compensation not that high.

Employers in this sector include:

  • Full-service restaurants;
  • Hotels;
  • Limited-service eating places (fast food locations, coffee shops, and cafeterias);
  • Bars and taverns;
  • Food trucks and carts; and

(See our separate posts on food trucks and carts and catering services.)


Careers available in this sector include:

  • Food and beverage servers;
  • Food counter attendants;
  • Bartenders;
  • Cooks;
  • Chefs;
  • Kitchen helpers, dishwashers, bussers, and related support occupations; and
  • Restaurant and food service managers.

At the entry level, kitchen helpers, dishwashers, bussers, servers and bartenders generally start out at minimum wage, although servers and bartenders may earn additional income through tips.

Cooks, as they progress with training and experience, move up from minimum wage to an average income of perhaps $40K. However, compensation varies with the amount of training, experience, and expertise, as well as with reputation. At the high end, chefs who have gone through apprenticeship programs and gained considerable experience, may earn $75K or more, but these are likely the exception.

Working in a restaurant is not easy. As the settlement.org website points out:

  • “Work hours in restaurants are often long and irregular. Workers often are required to work a split shift, coming in early in the morning to prepare, and returning for the evening service. Restaurant work requires exceptional organizational skills and creativity. The ability to work with others, often directing their work, is also important.

Need for English language proficiency

Entry-level positions that don’t directly interact with customers (such as kitchen helper or dishwasher) may only require a very low level of English proficiency. Where other workers in a restaurant speak a newcomer’s language, even little or no English may be acceptable.

Some employers have made a particular effort to hire refugee newcomers and may make special allowance for their current level of English proficiency. These may be independent establishments, such as Beiruti Grand Café & Restaurant in North York; regional chains, such as Paramount Fine Foods; or national chains, such as Starbucks.

However, communication skills become increasingly important as interaction increases with customers and co-workers.

There are organizations in the GTA which provide work-specific language training or learning opportunity in this sector, either as the focus of a program, or incidental to food-related training for newcomers, including:

  • Language Support Program – Food Handling (LINC) – Catholic Crosscultural Services
  • Culinary Training for Newcomers Program – Catholic Family Services of Peel Dufferin
  • Food Service Worker Program for Immigrant Women – Centennial College, Job Skills, York Catholic District School Board
  • Hospitality Language Training Project – CultureLink, Hospitality Workers Training Centre
  • Livelihood Café – Livelihood Project
  • Entry to Food Processing (EFP) Training – Toronto District School Board (TDSB) (For newcomers with minimum CLB3 and Ontario Works client status.)

Check our Programs & Events section, to find details of upcoming programs, using the filters for language, food service, food preparation, and restaurant programs.

Regulation and certification

There is no official certification or licensing requirement to work in a restaurant in Ontario (other than for those involved in the serving of alcohol – see below.)

Food Safety/Food Handler Certification

Since July 1, 2018, throughout Ontario, there must be at least one person has completed an approved Food Handler Certification course on any food services premises at all times. (A food service premises is any food premises where meals or meal portions are prepared for immediate consumption or sold or served in a form that will permit immediate consumption on the premises or elsewhere.)

This requirement makes having such a certificate, which is neither time consuming nor difficult to obtain, a worthwhile asset to have. Courses may be taken iin-class or online. A certificate is valid for five years.

According to the City of Toronto website, courses in that city are only available in English, but applicants can ask to write the exam in a different language. The course is meant to ensure that workers “understand the risks involved in food service or the need to meet food safety requirements, like personal hygiene, avoiding food contamination and keeping foods at safe temperatures.”

Depending on where you take the class, the fee varies:

  • Toronto Public Health offers the class at five different locations within the GTA. At the time of writing, the cost is $109.75.
  • Peel Public Health offers the class in Mississauga and Brampton. The cost is currently $63.53.
  • Food Handler Certification – York Region (ON) [York Region]
  • Check your local public health unit to find out the details specific to your location.
  • Additionally, there are some external providers who are approved by the Government to offer the course. The fee for each varies. Check the Government of Ontario website for a list of providers, including their fee, location, and dates they offer the class. See, for example, these programs which are particularly suited for newcomers, in our Programs and Events section (searching with the term, “food”):
    • Food Handler Certificate Program – YWCA
    • STAR Project – Food Handler – Agincourt Community Services Association

Smart Serve Certification

By law, all servers, bartenders, restaurant managers, and door/security staff, where alcohol is served, must be “Smart Serve” certified. As the Toronto Institute of Bartending website explains: “Smart Serve Ontario is designed to educate servers, bartenders, managers and other staff members as to what their responsibilities and obligations are under the law, as well as recognize the signs of intoxication and implement intervention strategies.”

Smart Serve certification can be pursued in a classroom setting or online. Either way, the training takes about 3-4 hours to complete. After the class, a written test is administered and, if passed, certification is issued.

In-person classes typically cost more than online classes. Check the Smart Serve Ontario website for details about cost and locations.

Other entry-level training

In addition to the courses described above in the section on the “Need for English language proficiency”, there are other training programs in the GTA, which are less onerous than an apprenticeship program and which may lead to work in the restaurant sector, but which are not specifically for newcomers. (Participants must be Ontario Works clients.) Examples of such programs are:


For those who are very serious about advancing their careers in cooking and have at least a CLB7 level of English proficiency, they may consider entering a “Cook” apprenticeship program.

However, as described on the Ontario College of Trades website:

An apprenticeship training program consists of on-the-job and in-school training. Generally, the time-frame to become competent in the trade of Cook is 6,000 hours (approximately three years) consisting of 5,280 hours of on-the-job work experience and 720 hours of in-school training.

Community Colleges offering programs that would qualify for a “Cook” apprenticeship include:

  • Centennial College
  • Durham College
  • George Brown College
  • Humber College

“Chef and culinary programs at Community Colleges require an Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) or equivalent for entry, and many require a grade 12 English credit. Recommended classes and preparation may include communications, entrepreneurial and hospitality classes, as well as any experience in the food industry or with food appreciation.”

Job market outlook

There is a broad range of employers in the restaurant sector, including:

  • National chains;
  • Corporate-owned establishments;
  • Franchisee-owned establishments;
  • Local independent restaurants and hotels (from ‘mom & pop’ to sophisticated)

There is an ongoing labour shortage in this sector, especially due to high turnover resulting from low levels of compensation, we well as challenging work schedules and conditions. As long as newcomers are willing, there are many employment opportunities for them, at least at the entry level.

Media stories

Pizza place owned by first Syrian refugee to the Maritimes delivers slice of success (The Chronicle Herald, Halifax, May 13/19)

Culture Kitchen offers newcomers to Thunder Bay ‘great and nice opportunity’ to learn, belong.      (CBC, Apr 2/19)

Weekend Bite: ‘Bab Sharqui’ serves authentic Syrian dishes prepared by refugees (CTV, Feb 17/19)

Toronto restaurant teaches skills to those who face employment barriers (CBC, Jan 5/19)

Refugee Chefs Are Revolutionizing the U.S. Food Scene (AFAR, Dec 6/18)

This Syrian refugee is living the classic Canadian dream. ‘We are so proud of Canada and want to make Canada proud of us’ (Toronto Star, Nov 16/18)

2 Syrian families, 2 different Newfoundland coasts, 1 love of food (CBC, Nov 11/18)

Unpacked – Soufi’s: A profile (Uber Eats, Nov 1/18)

Syrian woman opening restaurant in Corner Brook (The Telegram, Oct 28/18)

Once a Refugee, Now a Restauranteur (Bay of Quinte Welcome Portal, Sep 27/18)

Guelph’s latest shawarma restaurant owned and operated by Syrian refugees (Guelph Today, Aug 23/18)

Entrepreneurial refugees enrich Vancouver’s dining scene (Vancouver Sun Jun 10/18)

Syrian Refugees Open Restaurant (City News, Jan 15/18)

Despite challenges, Syrian refugee opens Windsor restaurant (CBC, Jul 20/17)

What it’s like to be a Tamil refugee in a Toronto kitchen (TVO, May 12/16)