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 our separate post on catering services).


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.

Open-minded employers

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 Wanda’s Pie in the Sky; regional chains, such as Paramount Fine Foods; or international chains, such as Starbucks.

There are organizations in the GTA that run work-specific language training or learning opportunities in the food service sector, either as the focus of a program, or incidental to food-related training for newcomers. They include:

  • 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 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.

Newcomer refugees may also look over 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.

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. Two results that appear, active as of July, 2019, are YWCA’s Food Handler Certificate Program and Good Food Brampton’s Culinary Training for Newcomers.

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.

Other entry-level training

In addition to the courses described above, there are other training programs in the GTA which are less onerous than an apprenticeship, may lead to work in the restaurant sector, but are not specifically for newcomers. In each case, participants must be clients of Ontario Works. Examples are as follows:

  • Toronto District School Board – On the Line Culinary Program: an intensive kitchen training and paid work placement for youth;
  • Dixon Hall: free tools, resources, and one-on-one support  for over 1500 people a year.
  • Hospitality Workers Training Centre: high-quality, hands-on training for those seeking to begin or further their careers in the hospitality industry.
  • Ontario Tourism Education Corporation (OTEC): developing people, improving performance, and solidifying businesses in the area of customer service.
  • Riverdale Immigrant Women’s Centre offers a Food Service and Hospitality Training Program. This 10-week program focuses on café and events management, catering, cooking and baking, office administration and social entrepreneurship with an in-house placement opportunity.
  • YMCA of Greater Toronto offers the YMCA Basic Culinary Skills Training Program. It includes just under 400 hours of kitchen training and just under 100 hours of classroom work.


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.

Media stories

Paramount Fine Foods CEO provides work opportunity to refugees upon their arrival in Canada (CBC News, Jul 13/19).

Can’t pay? It’s OK: St. John’s restaurant feeds hungry for free (CBC News, Jul 10/19).

On Canada Day, a Syrian refugee says ‘thank you’ to his new country (Waterloo Region Record, Jul. 1/19).

Syrian immigrant, refugees open new restaurant while pursuing new life in Canada(Global News, Jun. 30/19).

Meet the refugee serving up traditional Syrian ice cream at a Halifax shop (Toronto Star, Jun. 25/19).

‘Tables Without Borders’ Opens Restaurant Kitchens To Refugee Chefs (NPR, Jun. 23/19).

Soufi’s Co-owners Shihnaz and Husam on Running a Family Restaurant with Love (Chatelaine, May 24/19).

Syrian refugees pursuing the Canadian dream: opening businesses in Ottawa (CTV, May 22/19).

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).

Mom-and-pop restaurant serves up jobs, goodwill to Syrian refugees (Toronto Star, March 1/16).