Hospo workers busting a gut to keep our public living rooms open

As the hospo industry continues to deal with staffing woes, Bess Manson talks to those on the front line about how they are adapting to keep our ‘public living rooms’ open. She picks up a few shifts while she’s at it.

“So you’re in the Dish Pit. Good luck in there.”

That’s a server at Monsoon Poon wishing me Godspeed as I head into my second shift at the restaurant.

It’s been a long time since I was elbow deep in suds washing dishes in the hospo industry.

The last time was at what was the Skyline Restaurant in Kelburn in the late 1980s as a 17-year-old.

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I remember little, but I do recall how my colleague and friend played me for a fool when he took his lunch break at noon.

He returned to find me flanked by the Petronas Twin Towers in plate form.

In those bad old days chefs shouted, cussed and tossed hot pans into the sink with a lot of gusto and not a lot of warning.

It was hot, dirty work in those pits.

At Monsoon Poon in downtown Wellington I’m on the job with Max Mickelson, a 19-year-old kid and a total pro.

It’s a kinder place. Chefs introduce themselves, waiters scrape and stack and apologise if things clatter and crash.

Dinner time at Monsoon Poon.


Dinner time at Monsoon Poon.

Max has been a kitchen porter (a much loftier title than the dishwasher of my youth) for 18 months. He usually works weekend shifts to help support him during his design studies.

Lately, with the staff shortage plaguing the industry, he’s been called on to do some extra shifts, which is a bit more pressure in his life but good on the money front.

By 7.30 the restaurant is slammed, and I’m already looking forward to the cold beer after the shift.

The music is pumping, the plates are piling up. I look over and see a bucket of potatoes that I’m pretty sure aren’t going to chop themselves up. By 8pm I reckon I may have lost my fingerprints.

Just as things get really manic there’s a call for us to steam some more rice. Thank god Max is organised. I might have been served my P45 at that point.

It’s not fun scrubbing curry pots, and it’s no picnic stacking frantically hot plates and don’t even go there with the nightmare that is cutlery (a dirty and pointy business) but there’s something strangely satisfying .

Bess Manson works in the 'Dish Pit' at Monsoon Poon.


Bess Manson works in the ‘Dish Pit’ at Monsoon Poon.

There’s pressure but it’s short-lived. You look like hell at the end of a shift but if I’m honest that ship sailed about five minutes in. I’m pretty sure I lost a few pounds in sweat, though.

A few nights before, I was at the pass with Monsoon Poon co-owner Mike Egan dispatching mind bendingly large trays stacked with plates of food to hungry punters.

The prospect of dropping one of these just didn’t bear thinking about – noodles in handbags and curries on heads.

There were takeout orders to sort, cutlery to polish. At one point I delivered a flaming crème caramel to a customer. Dicey. Fire always blows their minds, says Egan.

It’s a good thing to see a restaurant full – our public living rooms are back in business.

And behind the scenes are a whole lot of people trying to keep the whole shebang cranking on.

Monsoon Poon’s Mike Egan says the industry is continually having to adapt and shift and pivot their way through these hard times.

Bess Manson/Stuff

Monsoon Poon’s Mike Egan says the industry is continually having to adapt and shift and pivot their way through these hard times.

But the hospo industry is still suffering from a staff shortage because of illness and a lack of overseas workers. Even with the borders open it won’t be till summer that the industry might see some workers apply for jobs.

Egan says the industry is continually having to adapt and shift and pivot their way through these hard times.

He has recently created a new role for people with no experience in the industry to help keep things running smoothly. They will be running food, polishing cutlery, resetting tables, filling up water.

It’ll help get more people into the industry that is crying out for staff and gives them the confidence to deal with customers face-to-face, he says.

Egan, national president of the Restaurant Association, says there’s a lot of good will in the business. He has been getting offers from ex-staffers who are working desk jobs to come in to do ‘’rock star shifts’’ to fill in gaps left by staff off sick.

“Next week we have a few big events on, and we have three [former employees] coming in to help us out. They miss that excitement … they want that rush of working a Thursday or Friday night. They work for a few hours, get a nice meal and a few drinks, and they get that buzz they miss sitting in front of a computer.”

Jet Patel, owner of Kanteen Cafe on Waterloo Quay.

Bess Manson/Stuff

Jet Patel, owner of Kanteen Cafe on Waterloo Quay.

Coffees and mermaids

At 9am on a Wednesday morning it’s flat stick at Jet Patel’s cafe, Kanteen. It’s the second rush of the morning – a bunch of Wellington office workers already got their fix a few hours before.

I’m working a shift on the floor and the coffees are flying out.

Coffee – it’s not a straightforward affair. It’s not just the short black, long black, cappuccino et al business. It’s all the milk – oat milk, almond milk, trim, skim, full fat. Coffee with a hazelnut dash, a vanilla flavouring, iced, extra hot – it all looks the same, but they’re wildly different.

People like what they like and you gotta get it right.

The baristas have a gazillion milks on the go. The place is full. But they’re still sending each brew out with some pretty impressive latte art (I got a mermaid in kelp before my shift!).

It’s hot behind the obligatory mask – scratchy. And it’s knackering work.

By the end of a 4½-hour shift my feet are on fire. I reckon I’ve walked a few kilometres.

Server and barista Philip Thomas, 25, says a few Fridays back he did 14,000 steps – that’s more than 11 kilometres.

The hospitality industry might be struggling to get staff, but people still need their fuel to get them through the day, and by hook or by crook, that’s what we’re going to do, says Patel.

He runs the cafe with a minimum of four staff and if someone calls in ill he steps in himself to run the food, make the coffees, and wash the dishes if he has to.

It’s been tough. A couple of staff have gone part-time to do their studies. His baker has moved on, and he’s not been able to replace him.

He had little success attracting staff through Facebook and Trade Me, so turned to MSD and jobseeker.

He got a couple of guys from a band whose gigs had been postponed and cancelled over the past two years because of the pandemic. Another Covid casualty.

Sometimes flying solo, Cuckoo Emporium bar manager Ehren Khoo-Steel, here whipping up a negroni, says thankfully there are understanding customers.


Sometimes flying solo, Cuckoo Emporium bar manager Ehren Khoo-Steel, here whipping up a negroni, says thankfully there are understanding customers.

Patel’s wife and daughter have stepped in to work. A few former employees have also returned to do shifts to help fill the roster. He’s even had a pen pusher from upstairs at New Zealand Post come down to lend a hand.

“That’s what we have to do – bring in everyone known to man.”

Cafe owners are helping each other out by lending each other staff if others are short, says Patel.

Like other businesses, he’s had to continually adapt. When his head barista’s flatmate got Covid, instead of taking a week off to self-isolate, Patel put him up at in nearby accommodation so he could carry on working.

He knows cafes that have been so short on staff because of sickness they have gone to full take away service. “That’s what we’ll do if we get to that point.”

04/08/22.KEVIN STENT/STUFF.  Cuckoo Emporium bar supervisor Verity Andrews.


04/08/22.KEVIN STENT/STUFF. Cuckoo Emporium bar supervisor Verity Andrews.

Going Cuckoo

It’s a mellow Thursday evening at Cuckoo Emporium on Wellington’s Waterfront.

I wish I’d been there the previous night when bar manager Ehren Khoo-Steel had been flying solo and run off his feet with thankfully understanding customers.

After a crash course on the till it’s straight out onto the floor to take orders, deliver drinks and snacks, chew the fat – customers like to chat.

In a small place like this you have to be able to do everything, from conjuring up a cocktail and serving drinks to washing glasses and cleaning up.

Winter can be busy at the bar – a 50s/60s nostalgia joint. It’s mostly an after-work crew that stop by on the way home.

Summer is madness. Khoo-Steel says staff sometimes do 14,000 or more steps in a service, running drinks around their outdoor area. That’s some workout.

This year has been the toughest in the business yet, says Justin McKenzie who owns Hawthorn Lounge, CGR Merchant & Co and Cuckoo Emporium.

There has been a lot of staff sickness across teams and some guys have had to pull much longer shifts than he’d like them to do.

He has advertised for ‘’weekend warrior’’ positions to cover Thursday, Friday and Saturday shifts, but they have had little success. He increased pay rates but still struggles to get staff.

“It’s really hard because it puts a lot of pressure on our full-timers … If someone gets unwell we don’t have any fat in the system any more. I’m very conscious of burnout. We’re trying to make sure everyone is okay.”

He’s been pretty touched at the offers of help from friends and even some of his regulars.

“When your customers are wanting to support you to the point that they are willing to muck in and do some glasses, clear some tables, be that last set of legs you need just to get you through the hump, that’s just a massive kudos to staff that they are creating an environment that regulars want to support. That makes me very proud.”

Julie White, chief executive of Hospitality New Zealand.


Julie White, chief executive of Hospitality New Zealand.

“It’s a luxury to open”

The staff shortage is a crisis and a nationwide issue across the entire hospitality sector – from food and beverage to accommodation, says Julie White, Hospitality Association of New Zealand chief executive.

“It’s at crisis level. It’s a luxury for owners to open, that’s how bad the labour shortage is,” she says. And that was exacerbated by illness.

“Fifty per cent of the hospitality workforce, particularly in F & B, are under 30. Young people generally live and work together so when someone becomes covid positive their whole house needs to isolate so that venue then has [fewer] staff for a whole week.”

It’ll be a while before we see the fruits of labour coming in from overseas, she says.

Students in the Northern Hemisphere don’t finish school till mid-year so people doing their OE won’t be here much before summer, she says.

“That’s just the reality.”

White says she has the utmost respect for the industry’s resilience in coming through Covid.

“They collaborate, they help each other out, they share staff and stock.”

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