Hungry tourists are heading home from popular regional destinations, disappointed they could not get a restaurant table.
Largely due to massive staff shortages, many restaurants in regional Victoria are now unable to operate at full capacity, or open their doors at all.
"We have huge demand from tourists to open more days, and for more services," says Liam Thornycroft, co-owner of modern Italian restaurant Beppe in Daylesford.
"But to do so, we would need to work ourselves to death. I would love to hire more staff, however at present they are non-existent."
Thornycroft and his business partner Samantha Mackley have spent large sums of money advertising for three waitstaff and two chefs positions without response.
"Daylesford is my hometown and used to be a place to escape to, but now it's becoming a less desirable destination to work as accommodation dries up," says Thornycroft.
"There is no housing for workers. A lot has been snapped up by holiday rentals. There could be 60 people waiting for a long-term rental property and then starts a bidding war. This scares me because my staffs' leases are coming up for renewal."
Thornycroft and Mackley opened Beppe a week before Victoria's first COVID-19 lockdown and watched as their international chefs and waitstaff flew back home.
"We need to make back the losses from the past 12 months," says a frustrated Thornycroft, "But we cannot risk exhausting our staff by asking them to work harder. We could have a thriving lunch menu and open more nights and still not keep up with tourist demand. But there is simply not the staff."
At present, there are around 15 jobs for chefs being advertised in Daylesford.
The story repeats itself across the state. At Anglesea on the Great Ocean Road, award-winning chef Matt Germanchis operates Fish by Moonlite, regarded by some as serving the best fish and chips in Victoria. Germanchis only uses Victorian fish, often from Apollo Bay, and precooks his potato cakes in a light bay and garlic brine.
Seafood lovers queue out the door to buy from Fish by Moonlite, huddled next to Anglesea's only supermarket. But despite the demand for his crumbed calamari, Germanchis can only open five days a week because he can't find staff.
"Not even a kid to fill the sauce container," says Germanchis. "If I could get more staff, I could open longer, more days and serve more customers."
He points to lack of local accommodation, low interest in the hospitality industry, and general employment malaise.
"The tourism bodies are pushing more customers to the regions, but we can't serve them. It leads to disappointment on all sides."
Meanwhile in the popular wine and dining destination of Beechworth, a need to feed the madding crowds took an interesting turn this week.
The local Indigo Shire Council and the Beechworth Chamber of Commerce met to discuss the possibility of bringing in food trucks over Easter to meet the high tourist demand for food options. Christmas saw the town overwhelmed and visitors leaving to eat elsewhere.
"If it is established there is a real need to bring in additional catering, then it will be considered," said local shire economic development officer Guy Wilkinson.
"But it is only a possibility. There are many factors in play, from government-mandated lowering of capacity in some venues to staff issues. Hopefully, visitors will have empathy for the staff and business owners."
In nearby Bright, Susan Plath, owner of The Chicken Shop, a North American-style charcoal chook eatery, has been forced to close because of staff shortages.
"We cannot find one person to work for us, and we have had to close," she says. "We won't be able to open for Easter. It's devastating. I started a full-time job five weeks ago just to get money for the family."
Another North East Victoria restaurateur, Sally Wright from the Good Grub Group, is doing better. She and business partner Tim Witherow have opened two slightly remote but well-regarded dining rooms in the past six months: Cyril in the Whorouly Pub and Vera at Glenbosch Estate at Everton Upper.
"Labour is scarce and public holidays are king," says Wright. "Our places are off the main roads and a little harder to find, so we don't get as slammed. But this Easter, I am ringing around the family, friends, and neighbours [for help]. The crew next weekend will be filled with 12 to 62-year-olds!"
Industry veteran and respected Beechworth-based chef Michael Ryan only opens his two-hatted restaurant Provenance four nights a week to allow his small team a reasonable lifestyle. He says the staff shortage could be fixed in the short term by reopening the border to overseas workers.
"But the industry is no longer an attractive workplace," he says. "We are struggling to recruit younger people. Many of our best chefs have left the industry for a better life. As an industry, we need to create better working conditions, more equitable payment, and invest in training. Unfortunately, it seems the regional areas are being hit by this problem the hardest."
Roads less travelled
Everywhere will be busy this Easter, but it is worth considering a visit to these slightly less congested dining destinations for the long weekend. Remember to book ahead and look after the staff.
From Alexandra to Shepparton, the Goulburn River's plains form the bed of one of Australia's biggest food bowls. A road trip downstream will reveal historic pubs, fish smokers, wineries, restaurants, galleries, and a spectacular red gum forest. Try the house-baked goods at the Alexandra Hotel, or book in for a tasting at historic Tahbilk Winery at Nagambie.
Forty minutes west of Ballarat is this stunningly beautiful wine region boasting more than 25 wineries, some with excellent cellar door restaurants. The region is famous for its sparkling whites and cabernet sauvignon. Blue Pyrenees Estate near Avoca and Summerfield Winery near Moonambel have excellent value tasting platters, while the historic Avoca Hotel is known for its terrific gastropub menu.
Echuca Backroads Trail
This winding backroad following the Murray River downstream from Echuca to Koondrook gives travellers the chance to buy wine, fruit, avocados and honey straight from the producers. On this sojourn through stunning Murray River scenery, stop to taste the vintages at Restdown Wines and continue west for arguably Australia's best hot porchetta roll from Bundarra Berkshires at Barham.