Cafes and restaurants on the NSW South Coast are shutting up shop during the first normal tourist summer in years because they cannot hire enough staff.

Many hoped this season would provide relief after fires, floods, the pandemic, and wet weather kept people away over the past three summers.

But for some, a lack of workers means they have been unable to capitalise on the return of the tourist dollar. 

For Batemans Bay restaurant owner Ray Ramzy, it was the last straw.

“After seven years of success, being known, people coming from Canberra for our food, we’re putting our business up for sale,” he said.

“It’s sad to say.”

Batemans Bay Business Chamber president David McLachlan said it was a difficult setback for many.

“It’s hard to get staff; it’s hard to retain staff,” he said.

“Like every small business in regional areas, it’s just damn tough.”

Venues at 50 per cent capacity

Stingrays Ocean Grill, where Mr Ramzy is the owner and manager, used to sit about 300 people across two dining sessions each day.

But with just a handful of staff, he was only able to accommodate about 200 diners a day this summer.

A man cuts up a white fish in an industrial kitchen.
Restaurant owner and chef Ray Ramzy has had to run his kitchen alone because he cannot find staff.(ABC South East NSW: Holly Tregenza)

“We can’t open our doors and extend our hours because there is just no staff to do the job,” he said.

The staff he had managed to recruit were often teenagers who lacked experience and could not work late shifts.

“We used to run two sessions: 5pm to 7pm and then 7:30pm to 10 o’clock,” he said.

“At the moment, we just do one session, 5pm to 8pm because the kids are so tired and we don’t want to get them too stressed.”

Cafe owner cannot even find ‘unskilled’ staff

About 20 kilometres south at the Mossy Cafe, employees are also in short supply.

The Mossy Cafe Group runs three cafes, and owner Belinda Dorsett said it had been almost impossible to keep them fully staffed.

“I’ve been running this business for seven years now and it has never been easy to get skilled hospitality staff here,” she said.

“But this summer has been just next level, we can’t even find unskilled staff. It’s been really challenging.”

A man and a woman stand in front of a cafe looking at the camera.
Belinda Dorsett and manager Dean White have not had a day off since Christmas.(Supplied: The Mossy Cafe)

One of her cafes shut for two weeks to give employees a break and Ms Dorsett was considering closing other locations for a few days to give staff time to rest.

She said it was hard as a small business owner to be competitive in a tight labour market.

“There are businesses out there a lot bigger than us that are able to afford to pay people more money and give people more flexibility,” she said.

“It’s just becoming harder and harder. My fear is that we will see a lot of the small businesses not survive.”

High cost of housing, shift post COVID

Mr Ramzy said some staff had moved away because of the increasing cost of rent on the South Coast.

“We just can’t compete with the huge increase in [rent] prices,” he said.

“A two-bedroom flat might be $500 a week. Not many people can afford that, so it’s better for them to move from the Bay.”

As well as a depleting reserve of locals, Mr McLachlan said the absence of backpackers who would normally fill seasonal roles had left a gap.

“We just don’t have the people here right now,” he said.

A group of kitchen and wait staff stand outside a cafe with their arms around each other.
Staff at the Mossy Point Cafe are working long hours to make up for a lack of new hires.(Supplied: The Mossy Cafe)

‘More to life than work’ mentality a problem

Post COVID, some of Ms Dorsett’s staff have left the area to travel using money they have saved during lockdowns, and others used the time away from the cafe to retrain in other industries.

She had also noticed a change in attitude toward work more broadly.

“I think people have just left the drive and desire to work at the moment,” Ms Dorsett said.

“They’re exhausted from the past few years. People have realised there’s more to life than work; it’s changed their mindset and mentalities.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it has created this problem.”