Amid staff shortages, restaurateurs are ‘fighting’ to keep their business running

Some restaurants have resorted to poaching workers from rivals with higher wage offers to maintain operations, while other restaurants have been forced to temporarily close for the first time during the pandemic.

The fast-spreading Omicron variant has left many industries, including hospitality, shorthanded because thousands of workers have either tested positive for COVID-19 or need to self-isolate because they are in close contact.

A trickle of international students and temporary workers returning to the country after the borders closed has also exacerbated staff shortages for some businesses, while others that manage to stay open are operating on a knife edge.

Hana Tania, owner of Indonesian restaurant Ayam Ria Penyet, was forced back into the kitchen to keep her South Melbourne restaurant open.

Before the pandemic, she would normally have four to five people working at a time, but now she has to make do with just three, including herself.

“We still have to pay the bills,” Ms Tania said.

Ms Tania said whether the restaurant opened at reduced hours – or not at all – was a day-to-day decision, depending on who was sick or had to self-isolate.

On top of everything else, Ms Tania said customers were sometimes “rude” when they had to wait for their food.

“That’s why I always [ask] before ordering food if they don’t mind waiting while we catch up on orders due to understaffing,” she said.

“Please be kind to the hospitality industry at this time. We are doing our best to serve you.”

Restaurants fight over workers

Ms Tania said some restaurants have also resorted to poaching staff with offers of better wages.

“Let’s say we were already offering a rate based on the standard price, but a fine dining restaurant might be offering them $35 an hour to do the dishes,” she said.

“A lot of restaurateurs I know have told me they can’t compete with them.

“A few restaurateurs even offered to give their staff a few hundred extra dollars if they could recommend and bring their friends to work.”

A woman holding a glass of iced coffee and smiling at the camera
Augustina Mentari decided to work fewer hours to avoid catching COVID-19.(Provided)

One of those to benefit from the staff shortage was hotel worker Agustina Mentari, who was finally able to return to Melbourne before Christmas after being “stranded” in Indonesia for nearly two years.

Ms Mentari said she already received job offers during her stay in Indonesia, and sometimes the offer was made when the landlord had not even read her CV.

This week she is working as an all-rounder for $30 an hour, $10 more than two years ago, she said.

“A lot of my friends, of course, would take the higher-paying jobs.

“Even in one case, when they wanted to quit their job to work at another company with a higher salary, the owners raised the salary to keep them.”

However, having caught COVID-19 in Indonesia and not wanting to repeat the experience, Ms Mentari decided to take fewer hours to limit her exposure.

Restaurants forced to close after surviving lockdowns

While some restaurants are struggling to get by, others have been forced to close for the foreseeable future.

A building exterior of a restaurant with a delivery man holding a bicycle standing in the corner
Indonesian restaurant Nelayan has temporarily closed its Hawthorn branch due to staff shortages, but its CBD branch is still open.(Provided)

Nelayan’s Hawthorn branch, one of Melbourne’s oldest Indonesian restaurants, had managed to stay open, even during months of lockdowns in the city.

However, it has been closed since last week due to a lack of staff and will not reopen until the owner finds a new chef.

Owner Samuel Sanusi told the ABC that branch chef Nelayan’s Hawthorn was returning home to Indonesia for at least a few weeks and could not find a replacement.

“He has not visited his family since Melbourne. [first] lockdown and of course I have to be wise in letting it go,” Mr Sanusi said.

He said that although he searched for three months to find a replacement, he was unable to find anyone with the necessary experience.

“I’ve tried in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, no luck yet… even from Indonesia,” he said.

A man standing in front of a coffee machine in a cafe
Tai Chin Hua says he has fewer customers now than he did during Melbourne’s lockdowns.(Provided)

Work more hours but earn less

In south-east Melbourne, Tai Chin Hua, owner of Vegi and Coffee Lover in Caulfield, has decided to serve take-out only due to a lack of workers.

The cafe opened just before the second lockdown and is also struggling to find new staff.

“I don’t know why, but we have fewer customers now than during the… shutdowns,” Mr Hua said.

“A member of my staff is a close contact and could not work, and another member of staff [member] is so afraid of the current spread of COVID that they have decided to stop working.

“We only have three or four employees in total, so losing one or two people has a huge impact.”

Mr. Hua said he worked more than 10 hours a day, yet he earned less money.

“Myself and the existing staff have to put in more hours and more tasks. For example, the service staff also have to help in the kitchen,” he said.

Mr. Hua said he advertised for new employees but no one applied.

He said it could be the result of a lack of international workers coming to Australia.

“It’s really hard to hire now because we sell Asian-style food and therefore we need bilingual staff who can speak Mandarin/Cantonese and English,” he said.

“The future is uncertain and I don’t know what awaits me tomorrow… but I have no choice but to endure and carry on.

“Government allowances during lockdown helped a lot, but we don’t have any now. We need them more now than before.”

Staff salaries have ‘skyrocketed’

A man standing in front of a window and smiling at the camera
Wes Lambert says the government should start exploring options to support the industry.(Provided)

In November, the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association of Australia warned that consumers should prepare their wallets for rising menu prices in the new year due to rising costs of goods, combined with businesses having to hard to find workers.

Association chief executive Wes Lambert said the “unfortunate” part of the staff shortage was that salaries had “skyrocketed”.

“While we value competitive salaries, unfortunately many businesses are simply unable to cope with these salary pressures and have no choice but to close on quiet days or nights,” said Mr. Lambert.

He said the border closures meant Australia was missing out on the biggest talent the world had to offer.

“They want to work here and consumers are especially deprived of that,” he said.

He said it was crucial for the survival of the industry that governments consider reinstating financial support programs such as those offered earlier in the pandemic.

Ms Tania said changes to the definition of ‘close contact’ had helped business owners, but the hospitality sector needed more government support.

“We know we are starting to live with the virus, but when we all reopen, who is going to work? I think the government needs to think about that as well,” she said.

Additional reporting by Mengjie Cai

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