Northland's hospitality staff shortage is worsening as businesses fight for the same staff over the busy summer period.
The industry heavily relies on workers from other regions of the country as well as travellers from around the world, who are now non-existent under Covid border restrictions.
Multiple businesses are searching for more than one new staff member, Trade Me is displaying 41 listings for jobs in the hospitality industry in Northland, Seek is showing 31 listings.
Owner of two Whangārei cafes overlooking the busy town basin, Justin Le Cheminant, says they have consistently been advertising for new staff over the last three months.
"We felt that our Christmas or summer got off the ground so slowly, because there was almost an active deterrent for people to come to Northland."
The Mokaba Cafe and Riverside Cafe owner says his colleagues in the industry are facing the same issue, and with the borders closed, they're all interviewing the same people.
"I think what it comes down to is the Government's policy of cutting off immigration and so on, has an altruistic end goal of, you know, New Zealanders will fill it. Well, I think in theory that's a great idea. In practice, Kiwis generally don't want to be doing these entry level positions."
Le Cheminant says the attitude of Kiwis towards working in the hospitality sector is what separates them from the overseas workers he would usually employ during this season.
"It's almost like they sort of say, oh, it's only a transient thing, you know anyone can do it. Whereas people from overseas either Europe or America or Asia, they see it as a job and a profession."
Le Cheminant says his businesses encourage a clear career path to working up the ranks in the cafes, but most Kiwi applicants don't have any experience at all, which isn't desirable for his large, busy cafés over the summer period.
"I think we've got to somehow loosen the immigration policy without flooding the country."
Restaurateur Lloyd Rooney owns five restaurants in Northland, so he knows the issues of the hospitality labour shortage all too well.
"Obviously, we haven't had anybody come in now for almost two years. So, we're relying on much more of a domestic market."
Rooney says applicants for jobs have dwindled over the past six months and he often runs two or three adverts at a time for different roles online.
"I think my advertising bill this year probably will exceed by 10 times the amount I spent last year."
Despite his labour shortage woes, Rooney is cautious about opening the border for international workers.
"I don't think an open border is really what we need at the moment, I just think probably the Government's better off seeing what happens with Omicron around the world and buying themselves time on how to deal with it."
Instead, Rooney has been working internally to try solve his staff shortage, changing the way he looks at hiring and upskilling.
"We've taken on a much younger workforce and we use them to run jobs and drinks and then we just therefore use a much shorter smaller wait staff to actually take the orders."
Rooney wants a change in mindset towards the industry, as a viable career instead of a filler job, and also wants better hospitality training in the Northland area.
"I'd much rather, as an employer, have six really high trained staff and pay them well then have 10 poorly trained staff and pay them mediocre."
"I think we're all just trying to find our way through the best we can."
Duke of Marlborough Hotel co-owner Riki Kinnaird says the decision for Northland to remain in red has prevented him from finding staff from other regions as he usually would.
"Staffing levels have dropped. We cannot interview anyone properly and they can't interview us."
Traditionally the days following New Years are the busiest days of the year in hospitality, but you wouldn't know that if you walked down the streets of Russell, says Kinnaird.
"We were the only restaurant open in Russell, even the fish and shop was shut."
As a summer holiday destination, Northland businesses rely on this period to help them survive the slower winter periods.
"What that means is that these restaurants lose money at the only time they can make money."
While Northland has been busy with holidaymakers over the Christmas season, Kinnaird says he thinks staff are scared to travel to Northland for work.
"It's encouraging people to go south instead of north."
Kinnaird questions why Northland remains in red despite a lack of Covid cases, and suggests the system should be refined down restricting to smaller areas with low vaccination.
"It's a blanket approach. It's a clumsy system for a big region."
Russell's central population is 89.2 per cent double vaccinated, against the national average of 92.10 per cent. Nearby, the Russell Forest-Rawhiti area is only 79.1 per cent double vaccinated.
Northlands traffic light status is due to be reviewed and updated by the Government on January 17.
Terra Restaurant owner Sarah Connor, opened her upscale Paihia eatery just four months before the pandemic began, and says it's a struggle to find anyone to apply for the jobs at all.
"Just from previous experience we have always relied heavily on foreign workers. It's just they happened to be the ones that were applying, we are open to anyone."
A listing for a job vacancy Connor put up got 15 views and only one applicant, someone who wasn't even in the country.
"We have had an ad up consistently for nine months."
Connor says her colleagues across the country and the globe are facing the same issues, so changes with the traffic system are unlikely to improve things.
"I don't think Auckland is an issue; they are struggling just the same as us."
"It nothing unique to New Zealand. I've seen big names in the United States and Europe that have been advertising for a year. These are places that usually have people walking in (to work)."
She says the lack of staff isn't just the reflection of a global pandemic, but an ongoing industry-wide issue.
"I don't think it's a government thing, I think it's the nature of the industry and people want to be in careers with more social hours."
"It's hard to say what the reason is, the foreign workers have always been temporary anyway."
Connor and her partner are both chefs and she says their ability to work at the business gives them resilience, but public expectations of dining out can be wearing.
"The consumers need to realise that you no longer can walk into a restaurant and get a $20 meal and have staff earning a living wage."
Northland Chamber of Commerce CEO Stephen Smith, says the shortages are endemic throughout the industry, but Northland is particularly impacted due to the region's reliance on tourism.
"We have the biggest tourism region in the country, certainly very significant to Northland's GDP and when you turn the tap off that's been running for a very long time and you've built a business, which has been constructed to satisfy that, that flow (on) is catastrophic."
The battle for restaurants and cafes to stay alive, let alone break even, is constant according to Smith.
"The owners themselves have been taking nothing out. They've been putting money in. In many instances that I'm aware of, they've been increasing their borrowings and putting money into the business."
Smith says a lot of hospitality businesses no longer have any reserves, but he wants to see support for the industry alternative to "hand outs".
"There's probably more that can be done between government and banks, to allow businesses to gain capital on a commercial basis, not in the form of personal borrowing."
For Smith, the solution is relaxing boarder restrictions to let international workers in, but he admits we don't know enough about the Omicron Covid variant yet to do so.
"There is more we need to learn before we can just fling the gates open. But, that's all these people need, a return of overseas visitors."