Five new Far North eateries may be the light at the end of the tunnel, following what Hospitality New Zealand has described as "some of the toughest trading periods in living memory".
Most of Kaitaia's recent spate of culinary and coffee offerings are driven by first-time business owners with a focus on personal and planetary wellbeing.
Four of the five new eateries (Happy Bowl, Kawhe Hub/Coffee Hub, The Palate and Peekaboo) told the Northland Age they aspired to connect the community, many of them over boutique coffee, healthier dining options and more sustainable business practices.
The fifth new venture, The Coffee Cove, opened yesterday.
The local community response to the last fortnight's new eateries is said to have been overwhelmingly positive and potentially a sign of an increase in consumer confidence.
Kaitaia Business Association (KBA) chairwoman Andrea Panther called the boom in offerings "fantastic" and "exactly what we need right now".
According to research commissioned by KBA, local youth said they were keen for a broader range of healthier options when eating out.
"These are menus we haven't had before," Panther said.
"And it's especially exciting in the current context of economic doom and gloom."
Perhaps the most versatile of the lot is mobile smoothie and juice bar The Palate, which is often stationed in the car park behind Inlet Surf.
Twenty-five-year-old Arli Brydon, of Ahipara, said she opened The Palate in order to serve fresh, healthy juices and dairy-free smoothies, in compostable packaging, to anyone who wanted a healthier option.
"It's been a very overwhelming and humbling experience so far. I'm really grateful for all of the customers, and so happy when they return as well," she said.
Brydon first raised the awning on her bright caravan in Whangārei last month and has been operating in Kaitaia since July 14.
She said she had wanted to start the business for about a decade, and had recently decided to take the leap.
"It's a pretty big jump, but I just thought, 'Life's short so you may as well do something you want to do'," Brydon said.
"The Palate is mobile, so one day I can be in town, the next at an event and the next at the beach. That's the beauty of being on wheels."
Levana Sietses, of Wellington, moved to the Far North a few years ago in search of a more affordable home for her young family.
While she succeeded on that front, employment had been another challenge.
"Having a 1-year-old and trying to find a suitable job that's flexible with childcare is very difficult," she said.
"My partner and I have talked about setting up our own coffee business, so we decided it would be a good time to give it a go."
Kawhe Hub/Coffee Hub opened on July 11 and is aimed at "creating a social hub for people to come and connect over great coffee, specialty hot chocolate or tea", said Sietses.
She added her primary focus was to offer boutique locally sourced coffee from Doubtless Bay's Ikarus Coffee, served with "great banter and the best cupcakes in town".
The cosy space is also filled with interesting artwork and antiques, each with a story to tell.
When asked about what had given her the confidence to open a business during this time, Sietses said it wasn't so much about confidence but rather making the most of the work available to them.
"We're not exactly confident. We're in the same struggles as everyone else, but don't have many options for employment with our baby. So, we took the risk and hope it works out."
Happy Bowl owner Alex Park's take on the economic climate was very on-brand, as was his easy smile.
Originally from South Korea, Park has lived in the Far North since 2014.
"I think everyone is struggling economically, not just in Kaitaia. Trying to keep on the bright side, I think that things will get better for everyone," he said.
Park began offering his take on poke bowls and Japanese/Korean fusion hot foods, such as donburi bowls and ramen soup, on July 18.
With a seating capacity of about 20, daily trading over lunch and dinner hours, and customisable fresh vegetable toppings, Park said he hoped to offer something for people of all ages.
Park also said he was working to develop new items in order to cater to vegetarian and vegan customers.
He said his vision for the business focused on eco-friendliness, by using sustainable packaging and generating mostly recyclable rubbish.
The most ambitious offering was, not surprisingly, that of seasoned Far North business owners Stefanie Ruscigno and Daniel Fasnacht.
The pair opened Peekaboo Backyard Eatery on July 12. It's their fourth business in Kaitaia.
Upon arriving in New Zealand in 2013, the European couple came straight to the Far North and soon got down to business with their combination of hospitality, hotel management and culinary experience.
They've owned Beachcomber Restaurant & Bar since August 2015, Beachcomber Lodge & Backpacker since October 2017, and Wayfarer Motel since October 2019.
With a capacity to serve more than 80 patrons at a time, and a backyard children's area where adults can relax, they have set their sights high with Peekaboo - despite its playful name.
They currently offer breakfast, smoothies, sourdough pizzas alongside more wholesome dishes and entrees, desserts and an impressive range of non-alcoholic drinks, cocktails, wines, beers and mocktails.
"We focus on fresh, handmade food," Ruscigno said.
"We've started with food from the Mediterranean Basin, but will look to expand further afield once we are comfortable. We're also working with local producers wherever possible."
Ruscigno said they endeavoured to provide a community hub, "where people come to connect over a plate of good food and drink".
"One thing we wanted to achieve was to lift people's moods, to inspire them and make them feel connected, especially after having been through some tough times with the pandemic."
Ruscigno said she and Fasnacht, who was a chef before arriving in New Zealand, believed in collaboration over competition.
"As foodies, we've eaten at numerous places around the Far North and draw inspiration from them," Ruscigno said.
"We love Bad Habits in Paihia, Hone's Garden in Russell, Little Kitchen in Mangōnui and Cafe Jerusalem in Kerikeri."
She also said the response from the community has been what they had hoped for.
"People say that they've been waiting for a place like this to open in Kaitaia, so they wouldn't need to travel far to get a bit of a city-like feeling," she said.
"They seem to feel transported, and this is definitely something we wanted to achieve."
She also noted that "there are some hospo superstars amongst the younger staff", which was essential to a reliable and high-quality dining offering.
They aim to trade seven days by the summer season.
The opening of the new Far North eateries matches a trend from around the country, which shows hospitality is clawing its way back out of the pandemic, even in the face of staff shortages and rising costs of living.
Hospitality New Zealand's 2022 remuneration survey of businesses showed the average hourly rate for hospitality workers had risen 8.9 per cent since last year, while the average salary had risen 10.5 per cent.
According to Hospitality NZ, the increases reflected the fierce competition for staff, as operators offered more to attract talent.
Hospitality NZ Chief Executive Julie White said the increases reflected the remarkable resilience of the sector in light of the ongoing Covid lockdowns, immigration challenges and lower business confidence.
"These are huge changes, considering the economic conditions businesses have been battling," White said.
"Achieving such significant increases in what has been our toughest post-Covid year yet when most businesses have struggled to keep themselves afloat is remarkable."