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Despite restaurant lobby's tale of woe, Albertans have been dining out in record numbers

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How to read a Restaurants Canada op-ed in the Calgary Herald -- with a pinch of salt. (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.

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 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.

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 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 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 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 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 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!

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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