VANCOUVER -- With dining rooms open again, customers have returned to Metro Vancouver restaurants – but many laid off kitchen and wait staff have not come back.

“It’s extremely very hard for us now to find enough staff to re-launch all our restaurants,” said Emad Yacoub, the owner of the Glowbal Restaurant Group, which has 10 eateries in Vancouver, West Vancouver and Burnaby.

After a roller coaster year of restrictions and layoffs, Yacoub says some restaurant workers have left the industry for good. Others are choosing to remain on employment insurance for now.

“There has to be a message from the federal government of how we are going to take people off EI,” said Yacoub, who has increased hourly pay by 15 to 20 per cent for back-of-house kitchen staff at all his restaurants to try to attract more applicants.

“Still, there is nobody coming through the door,” said Yacoub, who has 100 empty positions at his restaurants right now.

Sylvia Potvin, the owner of the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts in Vancouver, has sympathy for restaurant workers who have been through the ringer.

“It’s been difficult to be coming back and let go, and I can totally understand that. And based upon people I’ve been talking to in the industry, different chefs, there is a real concern. They need staff,” she said.

Before COVID-19, her cooking school was 40 per cent international students. She says the sooner they can return to learning and working here, the sooner they can help with the labour crunch in restaurants.

“We totally need these students, they are well-trained, they’re fluent in English, they can’t study here unless they have fluent English skills. And they’re career-ready and want to get that experience in our country, in Vancouver,” Potvin said.

Yacoub says restaurants also benefit from having international culinary students.

“They’re allowed to work for 20 hours per week. So they come in, they study, then they get 20 hours per week in a restaurant, most of them work in the restaurant business,” he said. Yacoub and Potvin would like to see the federal government fast track international student approvals.

If restaurants can’t find enough workers, Yacoub is worried they won’t be able to operate like they did before the two-month indoor dining shut down. Customers may notice changes too.

“I’m getting phone calls from all my friends that own restaurants, they’re saying, 'I’m going close on Sundays because I don’t have enough staff to operate seven days a week.'” Yacoud said. “This is a big problem.”