Mega Montreal food truck festival First Fridays (Les Premiers Vendredis) has decided to nix the event planned for this weekend, citing staffing troubles among participating restaurants as its primary reason for doing so.
After a 2020 pandemic hiatus, organizers relaunched First Fridays this year in a new three-day format. Rather than being held on the first Friday of every month from May to October, as has been historically the case, the event was scheduled to take place on the first Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of September and October. Now, organizers say they’re cancelling the second weekend of festivities, slated for October 1, 2 and 3 at the Olympic Park’s Esplanade.
“Unfortunately, due to the labour shortage in the industry, our restaurateurs were unable to answer the call for the October event,” festival organizers posted to Facebook on September 27 (originally in French but translated here).
Reached for further comment yesterday evening, Gaëlle Cerf, festival board member, vice-president of the Quebec Food Truck Association, and one-time owner of defunct Saint-Henri taco restaurant Grumman ’78, tells Eater that only eight or nine restaurants of the anticipated 30 to 40 planned for October would have been able to attend, forcing organizers to “take a step back and be realistic.”
“The fact that food trucks don’t have staff is a reality that’s hitting the entire industry and they are definitely struggling with that because they are seasonal. They always hire students, so getting into September was always harder to find staff, but now with COVID it just doesn’t work.”
In addition to food trucks, First Fridays features kiosks from Montreal restaurants, which have been scrambling to hire staff for their day-to-day operations and felt that taking on the one-off event was more than they could handle. Last month, for the first edition of First Fridays to be held since 2019, 27 restaurants (including both kiosks and food trucks) were in attendance, including new vegan food truck Good Reason, Saint-Henri Caribbean restaurant Maquis Yasolo, Plateau doughnut shop Crémy, and Montreal loukoumades chain Mr. Puffs. That number was about half of what organizers had hoped, Cerf says.
Cerf isn’t sure what’s at the root of what’s being widely referred to as an industry-wide “labour shortage” but says she isn’t convinced that pandemic emergency income programs are to blame. “I think that a lot of people may have just realized that those jobs kind of suck and that they aren’t happy working long hours in a kitchen or dining room, and maybe sometimes [are] not being paid enough.”
Another reason for the festival’s cancellation is an anticipated drop in diner turnout. While Cerf says the festival’s September edition went relatively well, bringing in about 10,000 people daily, foot traffic was about half what it typically would be. “It was busy but not as busy as a normal one,” Cerf says. “I think people are still afraid, and I understand. You don’t want to go throw yourself in a group of people, vaccinated or not, as if everything was normal.”
Cerf says the hope is to go back to the drawing board and return next year stronger and more prepared for pandemic-era industry shifts and fissures — while keeping an eye on how some of the city’s most reputable restaurants continue to fare. “I mean, as long as L’Express isn’t able to open seven days a week, we know we have a problem,” she says. “If they can’t, who can?”