"You would be forgiven for thinking I'd staged this," says Tristan Grier, co-owner of two Byron region eateries, on returning to the phone after being interrupted with questions about where a visiting chef will stay.
"I'm thinking almost as much about accommodation as I am about food at the moment."
Byron Bay's housing affordability is in crisis, with rental prices now exceeding many Sydney suburbs. Social media influencers, Airbnb's domination of local property, a COVID-inspired influx from cities and lack of social housing have been cited as reasons for the price surge.
The hospitality sector is particularly affected by the crisis with many kitchen and waitstaff now unable to afford to live in a council area where rents have jumped 26.4 per cent in the past 12 months to an average of $885 a week, according to a Domain Rent Report released in April.
Given that Byron's thriving food scene is a huge drawcard for people moving to the popular holiday destination, the irony that well-known restaurants can't find employees is not lost on owners.
"[It means] we've been unable to open seven days a week," says Grier regarding his two businesses – Harvest, a restaurant, bakery and delicatessen in the hinterland town of Newrybar and Barrio, a Middle Eastern-inspired eatery at Byron's Habitat retail precinct.
Also hit hard is long-time local, Jack Wright, who has had to delay the opening of his second venue.
"Everything's been ready since January," says Wright, owner of La Familia & Co, a Mexican-inspired eatery in Mullumbimby. "I simply haven't been able to find the 20 or so staff I've needed to open."
The staff shortage has also led Wright to curtail the opening hours of his first business, Hoopers, in Brunswick Heads.
"I lost three staff over summer because of housing, all young employees unable to find somewhere to live locally," he says. "Other staff are worried. How does a 20-year-old afford rent when it costs more than they earn?"
Both Wright and Grier are so desperate they've started down the road of trying to solve the problem by sourcing accommodation for staff.
"We found a five-bedroom house for staff to share but, in the weeks we needed to sort out details, the rental price increased by 40 per cent," says Grier. This increase not only pushed the cost for each worker out of reach but meant the liability for the business was too high.
The lack of transient backpacker labour due to COVID-19 travel restrictions is also contributing to a shortage of hospitality staff in low-skilled roles, such as barista and kitchen hands.
For specialised roles, such as chefs and managers, business owners are in the unusual position of having to discourage professionals who want to move from Sydney to Byron. The concern is that even highly-skilled staff will not be able to afford rent on a regional hospitality wage.
"Regional hospitality used to attract professionals by pitching a cheaper cost of living that was usually matched with a wage sacrifice," says Grier. "Now, we need to match – if not better – city offers. This leads to huge pressure on regional business as we ride the seasonality of our economy."
Michael Skinner, general manager of Elements of Byron resort, agrees that accommodation is a primary concern while recruiting.
"We need to ensure people wanting to move here for work understand they can't just find somewhere to live once they arrive," says Skinner. "We are definitely missing out on good staff as a result."
Elements have not investigated sourcing accommodation for staff but know some are doing it tough. "We've got staff who've been pushed out of their current accommodation and are living in vans or on couches, trying to make do," says Skinner.
Wright is relieved to finally have staff for an early June opening of La Familia & Co, but says the fact he's had so much difficulty despite his strong local connections shows how serious the problem is.
Byron is not the only area in Australia where hospitality operators are struggling to find staff. Top restaurants and cafes around the country are facing critical skills shortages without access to a foreign workforce due to COVID-19 restrictions.
However, with accommodation and food service major local industries, solutions are needed urgently in Byron according to hospitality operators, and businesses providing housing for staff is not the answer.
"How do we resolve this issue?" asks Wright. "If hospitality goes down, Byron is gone."
Newly elected mayor of Byron Shire Council, Michael Lyon, agrees. "By any measure of housing affordability, the closest a key worker like a barista can expect to find a decent rental is in Casino, nearly 100 kilometres away."
Byron Shire declared a housing emergency in March. The council is working on strategies including utilising unused railway corridors for temporary housing and establishing a land trust, where land is community owned and housing is owned or leased long-term for an affordable price.
In the meantime, business owners such as Wright and Grier are working hard to support their staff. "You become more psychological in your approach," explains Grier. "Every move needs to consider [a staff member's] general health and wellbeing, because life is not as easy as it used to be."
So, where will Grier's visiting chef stay? "With my parents," he says. "It's the only spare room I could find."