Northland restaurateurs fear their businesses won't survive without access to skilled workers as they struggle to recruit well-trained chefs and other hospitality staff.
The hospitality industry was already facing severe skills shortages and was reliant on migrant labour to fill many positions.
But with no migrant workers allowed into the country due to Covid-19 border restrictions, restaurant owners are having to turn to New Zealanders to fill the gaps – and they're not having any luck.
Daniel Fasnacht, the owner of Beachcomber Restaurant in Kaitaia, has been looking for two staff - a front of house and restaurant manager - for six weeks.
"All I get is school kids, that's it, nobody else is applying at the moment.
"It's devastating. I don't know how we can survive in hospitality."
Fasnacht is a trained chef and hotel manager originally from Switzerland.
He took over the Beachcomber Restaurant five years ago and has since opened the Beachcomber Lodge & Backpacker and Wayfarer Motel.
His restaurant staff consist of 12 people, who are mostly Kiwis, along with chefs from France and England.
He hoped that by getting extra skilled staff to help run the restaurant, he could spend more time with his newborn baby.
Fasnacht was also planning to open another restaurant in Kaitaia, but is now reluctant to do so.
It's been an ongoing problem exacerbated by the pandemic, he said.
"You can't find New Zealanders to work in the kitchen, and if you're further away [like Kaitaia] there's no trained chefs at all.
"If you have to replace anyone it's not possible, you have to teach them from scratch.
"It's even harder now because you can't get any staff from overseas. Now that everything is shut down, if someone leaves, I'm stuffed."
A recent survey by the Restaurant Association of New Zealand, which has 150 members in Northland, shows many others are grappling with the same problem.
The Feedback on Coronavirus 2020 snapshot survey was carried out in October to find out if members were finding recruitment challenging.
It showed 94 per cent of respondents trying to recruit new staff said it was "difficult or extremely difficult" to find a suitable candidate.
As well, 95 per cent said they had not noticed an increase in suitable New Zealanders applying for roles.
Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois said there has been a skills shortage in the industry for several years.
"We have relied on a migrant workforce and Covid has put a stop to some of that," she said.
"There are also people who were on working holiday visas and there's a huge group of people our sector had relied on which they can't rely on anymore.
"We need more solutions across the country.
"It's concerning for us an industry, particularly as we're coming into our peak season."
Bidois acknowledged everyone has to play their part in keeping New Zealand safe from the virus.
However, "where need is shown, we need to be able to access high level skilled people such as head chefs and restaurant managers".
"Training up to that level takes time," Bidois said.
"If we have to, we can manage through some entry level positions. But it's really difficult to fill a restaurant manager role with someone who's a junior."
Charn Tiebtienrat, the owner of Suk Jai Thai Restaurant in Whangārei, has been trying to find an ethnic Thai chef for one month to no avail.
The permanent, fulltime position for someone with five years' experience is advertised on Trade Me and comes with a $53,000 salary.
"We have received zero applications from New Zealand citizens and residents," Tiebtienrat said.
"It's a bit of a worry because I'm short staffed and my staff are now working really hard.
"It's not just us, it's everyone. I'm lucky we had no staff overseas when the Government closed the borders. Some went overseas and they're stuck there."
Bidois said $53,000 was "not an unreasonable wage" for a chef with five years experience.
The going rate for a chef de partie, a mid level chef, is $53,000 while an executive chef can expect to earn around $90,000.
She believes the difficulty in finding skilled Kiwi staff lies in perceptions around the sector.
"Not everyone wants to work evenings or on weekends.
"There are also perceptions that it's a low wage industry, but it is changing, we're no lower than other sectors.
"Everyone who starts off will start on a training rate or lower wage, but there are possibilities to work your way up. There are plenty of options to grow in the sector."
Hospitality New Zealand chief executive Julie White said historically the government has seen the industry as "low skilled and low paid".
"The sector is undervalued by government," she said.
"It's a Gateway programme at school. It's not even a university entrance."
Reliance on a migrant workforce is a "big problem we need to fix", White said.
"We need by industry for industry solutions. We need to work with the government around the right type of training that is fit for purpose.
"But if there's a silver lining, it's that Covid has presented us with an opportunity to acknowledge there is an issue and work towards addressing it."
Fasnacht said there needs to be a change in mindset in New Zealand that hospitality is a viable option as a serious, life-long career.
Both central and local governments should ensure an easier pathway into apprenticeships, and provide incentives for businesses to take them on, he said.
"We haven't got a plan at all for hospitality to make it attractive in New Zealand.
"In Europe if you're a waitress it's a big job.
"They work for their whole life as a waiter or waitress. There are big opportunities because there's so much to it."
Bidois said the association is working to ensure immigration officials understand how difficult it is to fill skilled positions.
It has also been working with the Ministry of Social Development on an Auckland-based Hospo Start programme to train unemployed Kiwis in the industry, and there are other training initiatives in pipeline, she said.
Bidois encouraged New Zealanders to consider hospitality as a career option.
Staffing is also a big headache for New Zealand tourism operators.
According to a new industry survey by Tourism Industry Aotearoa, just over half of the 318 respondents reduced staff numbers in response to the pandemic.
But ahead of the busy summer season, 60 per cent have sought to employ additional staff over the past three months, with 45 per cent saying it has been difficult to find suitable candidates.
TIA chief executive Chris Roberts said the survey shows that operators have got over their initial state of shock and are now resigned to working with what business is available, with an eye on future recovery.
"Getting the staff they need is a considerable challenge. The 'lumpy' nature of domestic tourism, with demand happening at weekends and school holidays, means many of the roles that need to be filled are part-time and temporary."
Some respondents commented that New Zealanders were unwilling to take on roles that were not fulltime and permanent.