Occupations in the Food Service Sector

The restaurant, quick service, and catering industries include a diverse range of employment opportunities for newcomers. Generally speaking, the hours may be long and variable, the compensation low, and the work physically demanding, but potential to create lasting bonds with customers and coworkers abounds. There are few things people identify more intimately with than their favorite foods.

Employers in this sector include:

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

(See also our separate posts on Catering Services and Food Processing and Production.


Careers available in this sector include:

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

Entry level positions like kitchen helpers, dishwashers, bussers, servers, and bartenders generally start out at minimum wage, although servers and bartenders may earn additional income through tips.

As cooks progress with training, they move up from minimum wage to an average income of $40K. Their compensation varies with experience as well as reputation. At the high end, chefs who have completed apprenticeship programs and gained considerable knowledge could earn $75K or more, but these are likely the exception.

Working in a restaurant can pose both physical challenges, such as lifting heavy supplies, and intellectual challenges, such as remembering customers’ intricate food orders. As Career Trend points out, “Working in a restaurant can be one of the most stressful jobs you can have, and the pay doesn’t always reflect the amount of effort the job requires. However, there are certain strategies you can employ to help you survive working in a restaurant. With the proper motivation, a heavy dose of patience and a hard work ethic, you can make the most out of working at a restaurant, achieving your monetary and personal goals without letting the stresses of the job overwhelm you.”

Need for English Language Proficiency

Entry-level positions without direct customer interaction—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. Of course, as the job tenure lengthens, communication skills become indispensable as coworkers get to know each other. Basic training programs may only require CLB 4. For those wanting to enroll in a more advanced, apprenticeship program (see below), a minimum of CLB 7 is usually required.

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; regional chains, such as Paramount Fine Foods; or international chains, such as Starbucks.

Refugee and other newcomers in need may also be interested in the Toronto Enterprise Fund’s Food Cluster Program, a collection of 17 employment social enterprises in the food industry that has provided meet-ups and mentorship to over 200 people facing barriers to the job market.

Basic Food Preparation and Service Programs

There are numerous organizations in the GTA which run work-specific, language training or basic learning program opportunities in the food service sector for newcomers. These programs, are relatively short-term and do not require an apprenticeship. They cover a wide range of skills, from barista training, for example, to basic culinary skills, banquet, restaurant and institutional food service; food handling; and food safety management. Some programs are not specifically for newcomers, but welcome them, although participants may need to be clients of Ontario Works. Some programs include paid placement as a component. Some are for youth only (up to the age of 30.)

Organizations within the GTA that offer food-related programs, which may be of interest to newcomers, include:

  • ACCES Employment;
  • Catholic Crosscultural Services;
  • Catholic Family Services of Peel Dufferin;
  • Centennial College; Job Skills, York Catholic District School Board (jointly);
  • CultureLink;
  • Good Food Brampton;
  • Food Processing Skills Canada;
  • Hospitality Workers Training Centre;
  • Livelihood Project;
  • Riverdale Immigrant Women’s Centre;
  • Toronto District School Board (TDSB); and
  • YWCA.

Check out our Programs & Events section for details about these and other upcoming programs. We suggest using the filters for language, food service, food preparation, and restaurant programs. Be sure to check of the box marked “Include ongoing programs offered every month.”

Community College Programs (Non-Apprenticeship)

Community colleges in the GTA also offer programs in hotel and restaurant services, including at a management level. More time, high school education, and a higher level of English proficiency are generally required, compared to the basic programs described above. For hotel and restaurant management, check out the websites of George Brown College, Humber College, Seneca College, Centennial College. and Durham College.

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 the Smart Serve Certification section below.

Food Safety/Food Handler Certification

Since July 1, 2018, throughout Ontario, there must be at least one person who has completed an approved Food Handler Certification course working on any food service premises at all times. A food service premises is any location 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. The certification is meant to equip its holder with the knowledge of safe food-handling practices to prevent food-borne illness. This requirement makes such a certificate a worthwhile asset to have.

Courses are available in person or online, they are neither time-consuming nor difficult to take, and a certificate is valid for five years.

According to the City of Toronto, local classes are only taught in English, but applicants can ask to write the exam in different languages. The fee varies depending on location:

Additionally, there is a list of external providers approved by the Government of Ontario including fees, locations, and dates. You can contact your local public health unit for food safety training specific to where you live. Do also make use of our Programs & Events section, selecting the sectors of ‘food preparation’ and ‘food service’ to determine where to attain your certification.

Smart Serve Certification

By law, all servers, bartenders, restaurant managers, and door/security staff must be “Smart Serve” certified where alcohol is sold. According to their main website, “Smart Serve Ontario is a registered charity, with a mandate to support the industry in their endeavours to ensure responsible alcohol sales and service is aligned with public safety for the good of our communities and Ontario.”

Smart Serve certification can be pursued in a classroom setting or online. The latter tends to cost less. Either way, the training is about 3-4 hours, followed by a written test, with certification being issued upon passing.

Check out Smart Serve Ontario‘s website for details about cost and locations.

Cooking apprenticeship

Those with a minimum English proficiency of CLB 7 and a serious interest in advancing their cooking careers may consider entering an 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 food appreciation or the food industry at large.

Job Market Outlook

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

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

Currently, the sector is suffering through a labour shortage due to high turnover because of low compensation, as well as challenging work schedules and conditions. As long as newcomers are willing, there are many employment opportunities available to them.

Entrepreneurial Opportunities to Start a Restaurant Business

Many of the media stories listed in the next section, below, are about newcomers who have started their own restaurant business. In this regard, see also our separate post on this website, Entrepreneurship – starting a business in Canada.