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Lockdown free … but nowhere to go: Why Sydney and Melbourne are already booked out until February

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The coming festive season looms as being a frustrating one for those eager to enjoy an overdue party and particularly for the hospitality venues that desperately need their business.

Despite a return to relative normality after the long lockdowns in NSW and Victoria, severe staff shortages mean restaurants and pubs simply cannot meet the pent-up demand and are being forced to turn down bookings.

Many of the top chefs and restaurateurs in Melbourne and Sydney say they have been forced to slash services – some by half – due to lack of staff.

Celebrity chef Neil Perry told Daily Mail Australia his lavish new eatery Margaret in Double Bay is booked out until February 2022 and he does not have enough staff to expand the limited sittings.

Christmas party bookings have also reached capacity in many of the nation’s top restaurants which are no longer accepting large groups over the festive period.

‘We would normally be accepting ‘book-outs’ (booking out the entire restaurant) for Christmas parties at this time of the year but I just don’t have the staff to accommodate them,’ says Perry, whose is no longer taking Friday night or weekend bookings until February next year.

‘Everyone is killing themselves to make it work as it is.

‘I’m currently paying staff $30,000 a week in overtime and I’m at the point that I just cannot whip them any harder.’

Celebrity chef Neil Perry says staff shortages are hurting hospitality businesses

Celebrity chef Neil Perry says staff shortages are hurting hospitality businesses

After months of lockdown, there is massive pent up demand for fine dining

After months of lockdown, there is massive pent up demand for fine dining

The problem is so bad that many venues are being forced to knock back Christmas bookings

The problem is so bad that many venues are being forced to knock back Christmas bookings

International Covid border restrictions has seen Australia’s steady stream of working holiday visa holders – which account for about 300,000 workers in Sydney and Melbourne annually – abruptly cut off.

Those visa holders, along with overseas students and backpackers, are the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the hospitality industry, says Perry, who is urging the government to begin allowing people back into Australia ‘immediately’.

‘You’ve got kids sitting overseas who broke their visas… we need them back on a plane and without the the reams of paperwork,’ he said.

Executive chef Jacqui Challinor this week opened the doors of high-end Flinders Lane newcomer Nomad in Melbourne – a sister to a venue in Sydney’s Surry Hills – and says Friday and weekend bookings are already ‘out of the question’.

New eatery has opened in Flinders Lane Melbourne but already Christmas bookings are full

New eatery has opened in Flinders Lane Melbourne but already Christmas bookings are full

Existing staff are working overtime at restaurants such as Neil Perry's Margaret at Double Bay

Existing staff are working overtime at restaurants such as Neil Perry’s Margaret at Double Bay

LOOKING TO BOOK A FANCY DINNER?

Margaret’s, Double Bay: Booked until February, with a small number of tables left free for walk-ins each night  

Cafe Sydney, CBD – Fully booked until December, no Friday or Saturday nights until February. Wait list scrapped with over 100 every night.

Totti’s, Bondi: Fully-booked until the end of January. 

Firedoor, Surry Hills: Fully-booked until March.

China Doll, Woolloomooloo: Limited mid-week availability but no weekend slots until January.

Saint Peter, Paddington: Mostly booked out until February. 

Nomad, Melbourne: Bookings over the festive season are ‘out of the question’  

‘I have people texting me for tables over the festive period and I’m saying; ‘I’m sorry but it just can’t be done’,’ says Challinor, who has been forced to slash back services to just five dinners and three lunch services per week.

‘We have worked so hard to get here and now we’re having to cancel reservations because we can’t staff the shifts. It’s bloody heartbreaking.’

Challinor believes the recovery of the hospitality industry will ‘a very long process’.

‘It’s great that things are opening back up and there is huge demand.

‘But the reality is we are just not in a position to reap any rewards just yet because we’re not able to accommodate the numbers that we want.’

The staff shortage is so bad, according to Aria and Chiswick owner Matt Moran, that he has been forced to cut his numbers for dinner and lunch by more than half.

‘So now instead of 14 services a week at Aria, we are doing five: four dinners and Friday lunch,’ Moran told Daily Mail Australia.

‘And it’s not just a matter of finding staff…it’s just that there aren’t any people to find.

‘We are at the point now where we are offering incentives to existing staff members who bring in other people willing to work.

‘But it’s so bad. It is the worst conditions I have ever seen in my whole career. And until we get the visa holders back in the country it won’t improve.’

SLASHED: Services at Matt Moran's Aria have been cut by more than half

SLASHED: Services at Matt Moran’s Aria have been cut by more than half

CUT BACKS: Festive services are now limited at Matt Moran's famed Chiswick restaurant

CUT BACKS: Festive services are now limited at Matt Moran’s famed Chiswick restaurant

Joel Bickford, executive chef at Sydney’s hottest new mega-venue Shellhouse in Brookfield Place, estimates the city’s hospitality workforce is down 70 per-cent on pre-Covid numbers.

‘But there’s nothing much you can do about it really…until they decide to re-open the international borders,’ Bickford told Daily Mail Australia.

‘On the flipside, we have also taken a hit in terms of clientele.

‘Normally we would also rely heavily on overseas visitors for trade so we’ve been hit at both ends.’

But there has been one silver lining according to Potts Point restaurateur Barry McDonald, whose famed eatery Cafe Giorgio overlooks Sydney’s Kings Cross fountain.

‘Tipping is up,’ McDonald says.

‘People are becoming far more generous and it’s a bonus for the staff that we do have because there are less people to share it between.’

Joel Bickford says Sydney hospitality workforce is down 70 per cent compared to pre-Covid

Joel Bickford says Sydney hospitality workforce is down 70 per cent compared to pre-Covid

One of the positives for hard working staff is that 'tipping is up'

One of the positives for hard working staff is that ‘tipping is up’ 



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