Sun-seekers and road-trippers in Victoria might be cooking more barbecues at their holiday houses this summer, as hospitality businesses in the regions scale back their operations in the face of a severe staffing shortage.
"No one really knows what to do. If we don't see some relief in the next couple of months, I see a lot of businesses closing down or reducing hours they're open," says Eliza Brown, part of the Brown family that owns and manages All Saints Estate near Rutherglen.
After Tobin Kent's sommelier resigned three months ago, he didn't receive a single job application, despite his 12-seater on the Bellarine Peninsula, Moonah, being one of the most exciting restaurant openings in Victoria in the past year.
"That left us one option really," says Kent, chef and owner of the business. "I started studying, reading books about wine and speaking to winemakers … it's been quite the journey."
Kent now creates not just Moonah's eight-course tasting menus but also matches a wine to every dish, splitting his time between kitchen and front-of-house.
It's an extreme example of how hospitality businesses are turning themselves inside-out to cope with the lack of staff that threatens to put the brakes on the economy's recovery after lockdown.
Australia's closed borders and see-sawing hours in restaurants after 20 months of lockdowns mean the international and domestic workforce has dried up.
"We're all fishing in the same pool at the moment," says Christian Dal Zotto, whose family makes prosecco in the King Valley.
Brown needs to hire 15 staff before December for a new restaurant, Kent says he needs three skilled staff while Lorne restaurateur Dominic Talimanidis of Ipsos could do with 10 to 15 more people across kitchen and the floor.
Seville Estate in the Yarra Valley responded to a shortage of waitstaff by completely overhauling its dining experience. Now, just 20 people dine at a time, receiving a set menu for $170 a head that's served by the chefs who cooked it.
Despite patron caps being removed on Thursday, dozens of businesses like Dal Zotto are still limiting the number of bookings they take, even though consumers have a huge appetite for socialising right now.
"We're getting busier and busier yet we can't open up 100 per cent because we don't have the depth of staff and the backup," says Dal Zotto.
Talimanidis is only utilising a third of the seats indoors at his popular Greek restaurant in Lorne, with no plans to increase this over summer.
He's already working seven days on the floor, his wife is booking babysitters four nights a week so she can help, and his 72-year-old father is carrying plates. It's not peak season yet.
"Every small business owner in our town is in a state of heightened anxiety ahead of what will undoubtedly be one of our busiest summers, with no clear understanding of how we will service everyone," says Talimanidis.
On top of the loss of backpackers and skilled visa-holders, Lorne and other attractive coastal towns have the additional problem of finding housing for workers. Affordable rentals are rare to non-existent, thanks to a boom in sea-changers and domestic tourism.
"A lot of us have had staff lined up and ready to go, but they can't find accommodation so they end up in Torquay," says Leon Walker of Lorne Business and Tourism Association, who also owns HAH Cafe on the foreshore.
Walker and the Association have just launched the Adopt a Worker campaign, encouraging locals to lease out granny flats, spare rooms or space for caravans to seasonal workers.
Hospitality mega-group Merivale, who recently purchased the Lorne Hotel, is rumoured to have leased the former Grand Pacific Hotel to get around the housing problem. Merivale did not respond to a request for comment.
Rutherglen, on the NSW-Victorian border, isn't affected by accommodation so much as the confusing border rules that were in place during each state's lockdown.
"We lost a lot of people," says Brown of All Saints. "A lot of staff got frustrated by the rules, showing passes, whether they could go to work or not."
She's hoping that investment in staff training, as well as a multi-million dollar project to build a new flagship restaurant, cellar door and casual dining venue, will pique people's interest in working at All Saints.
"Hopefully people in Melbourne might look at the country and see an opportunity. North-east Victoria's got everything: skiing, rivers, mountain-biking, food and wine, good schools and hospitals."
Upskilling current staff and ensuring they're happy is a number-one priority, according to restaurant owners. No one can afford to lose a pair of hands right now.
"The staff shortage is challenging but it's also good in some ways because it's forcing employers to give a lot more respect to the employees they do have," says Kent, who gives his team three days off each week and a set roster so they can make plans.
Despite the hurdles, Christian Dal Zotto remains optimistic: "We've managed to get through it before and we'll get through it again. We're just so happy to be back open."