Rotorua's "hospo" scene is changing as the world adapts to Covid-19 times. Despite the upheaval, there are some who are still loving every single day and wouldn't change a thing. Reporter Kelly Makiha meets a Rotorua waitress who has worked at the same cafe for 20 years and talks to those in the industry about why hospitality can still be a great career.
Waitress Caro Grammer loves her job at Capers Cafe so much, she's barely had a sick day in 20 years - apart from that time she needed open heart surgery.
This week marked 20 years since Capers opened its doors and Grammer was ready and waiting for the customers on that first day. She's stayed in the job ever since.
Finding hospitality staff who stick around the same job is a rarity in the industry, especially since the Covid pandemic struck.
According to a Restaurant Association Hospitality Report, the number of people working in the hospitality industry in Rotorua peaked last year at 7569. The figures for this year were not yet available.
But those in the industry say it's still the best job - whether it be to boost confidence, meet people, make money on the side or develop a long-term career.
Grammer, 60, said she not only wouldn't do anything else, she wouldn't work anywhere else - and being fed on the job was part of the attraction.
"I call it my food heaven."
She started working for owners Gregg and Susan Brown when they bought out her previous workplace, Trelawney Cafe, on Fairy Springs Rd.
"Gregg came in and said he was buying it and said I'll take her, her and her with me."
He wanted the Trelawney food and wanted to ensure no one was left without a job.
"They are just good people and there's not a lot of them out there. When you get a boss like that, you don't want to go anywhere."
Apart from the bosses and the food perks, there are other benefits too.
"It's just an exciting place to work. So many famous people come through here. Cliff Curtis has been coming to Capers for 20 years and reckons I'm his favourite waitress, and all the young people around you keep you young."
Before Covid-19 struck, she enjoyed working with overseas travellers on fixed-term contracts.
"We've had all sorts here. I feel like I don't need to travel the world now."
Grammer still works fulltime but has taken a step back from the duty manager role after having open heart surgery five years ago.
"I'm lucky to be alive really, but that's the only time I've ever been sick at Capers, that's how much I love it."
Gregg Brown, who has also owned the Pig and Whistle since July 1995, described Grammer as "gold" and a "champion for customers".
"If ever there's a problem she will over-compensate to make sure people are happy and is utterly reliable and I have absolute confidence she does everything right and in her own smiley way."
Brown said looking after staff, especially during economic crises like we were experiencing now, was more important than ever.
"I made a commitment to staff we would do our best to keep everyone employed. While we've had some people move on recently, we have managed to keep the team together. It's cost us a bit of money but your business is nothing without your team."
He said during his time owning both the Pig and Capers, he's had a mix of career hospitality workers and those who had used it as a way of making money to achieve other goals.
"I don't know how many accountants we've had come out of here."
One former duty manager, Gene Tomlinson, was still pouring beer while working as a lawyer and this year became a district court judge in Whangārei.
Hospitality stalwart Sharon Wallace has trained many of the region's hospitality workers for more than two decades and says despite the difficult times the industry is currently facing, there is still no better career.
She said the industry had changed since her heyday working in hospitality.
"When I started as a young mum, we got double time, triple time, laundry allowance, travel allowances and the unions were very strong. It was a very financially beneficial industry. I went and did retail for two weeks but went back to hospitality and never looked back."
She said it had proved a wonderful career path and she had achieved many goals, including serving lunch to the Queen at the Rotorua International Hotel.
She has spent 23 years tutoring hospitality and some are now bar managers and restaurant owners.
Now there was a different generation of workers with some not wanting to do the extra hours, night work and weekends.
"We used to work long hours and the attitude was 'suck it up buttercup' but this is something owners do now have to contend with and I see it from both angles. But the reality is the wages have not kept up with everything."
Wallace said she was against casual contracts as people needed certainty of wages.
"You want the super workers but you've got them on call and aren't committed to keeping the best. People need to know how much money they are going to earn."
On the flipside, those entering hospitality needed to realise it was hard work.
"I've learnt from the school of hard knocks and it sets you up to have a good work ethic and teaches resilience. It can take you around the world."
Wallace was confident the industry would be great again.
"It will come back. We have got all these fabulous cafes and restaurants in Rotorua and at the end of last year, I couldn't go anywhere without being asked for staff."
Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois said remaining profitable and sustainable could be a challenge but passion, paired with the love for food and service, kept people strong in hospitality.
"A lack of great people is often cited as the biggest challenge in our industry, but there are some truly great employers and employees out there."
She said great employees were the ones who understood the challenges of being a business owner and developed excellent relationships with their employers and their customers.
She said stories such as Grammer's were wonderful to hear and the success of her relationship with her employer was an inspiration to other hospitality businesses.
Hospitality New Zealand Rotorua president Reg Hennessy, who owns Hennessy's Irish Bar, said Covid crisis aside, it had been hard for those in the industry for a couple of years to attract good workers to hospitality.
"Sadly people have not treated it as a career."
He said crowds in the past fluctuated and he had a range of trained staff on casual contracts, many of them overseas travellers who lived at backpackers.
"You'd call them up and say I've got a big group in and they'd put on their Hennessy's t shirt at the backpackers and come down and work."
Hennessy said business was different now and big groups were predicted. He said he was lucky to have key long-term staff, including his daughter Hillary, who had worked for him for 12 years.
"I'm down to nine staff now but they are all fulltime and I'm paying them better than I ever have because they are too valuable to lose."