Hospitality hurdles of reduced capacity, staff shortages to be discussed at chamber meeting

The Merimbula RSL has plenty of facilities but COVID restrictions mean the club can only be at 50 per cent visitor capacity.

The Merimbula RSL has plenty of facilities but COVID restrictions mean the club can only be at 50 per cent visitor capacity.

Reports of multiple issues affecting Merimbula's hospitality industry has prompted the Merimbula Chamber of Commerce to put out an urgent call for a meeting with cafe, restaurant and hospitality venue owners.

The call comes after a very busy October long weekend when there were reports of visitors not being able to get a meal after 8pm and some food outlets being closed.

"We are now facing a new dilemma. After the fires and COVID we thought the problem would be how do we get people back here, but that isn't the problem now," chamber president Nigel Ayling said.

"Even with the Victorian border closed the town was full, but the problem is now we can't service all of our visitors' needs."

With the prospect of a potentially very busy summer period, the chamber is anxious that Merimbula is seen to be in a position to look after its visitors within whatever constraints may be in place at the time.

The limits really restrict our food service, and unless the cap changes and the per square metre rule is reduced, we will continue to have very limited capacity.

Secretary manager Merimbula RSL Club Michael Mutsch

"The long weekend was a bit of a surprise; we were all thinking about how to get people to come back and all of a sudden the whole place was booked out. Business-wise we weren't really prepared because businesses were still coming out of COVID slowly and with restrictions," Mr Ayling said.

In the last 12 months five food outlets have permanently closed in Merimbula including Subway, Hungry's, Booktique, Waves, and Double Shot.

"These closures have dramatically decreased the town's ability to deliver food services, as have the COVID restrictions which limit the number of people that can be seated at restaurants," Mr Ayling said.

Sally Daly of the Merimbula Wharf Restaurant said their capacity had been reduced from 120 to 50.

Michael Mutsch, secretary manager at the Merimbula RSL Club said that under current regulations the club could only have a maximum of 300 people on the premises at any one time and that includes people in all areas of the club, not just the bistro.

"That means if people are sitting in the bar watching the footy or having a drink, that is one less person that can be seated in the bistro being fed. The limits really restrict our food service, and unless the cap changes and the per square metre rule is reduced, we will continue to have very limited capacity," Mr Mutsch said.

The same applies to most restaurants and cafes, which means the town is only able to service about 50 per cent of its normal capacity. However some smaller venues have not opened because the square metre rule means they cannot accommodate enough people to make opening viable.

Pretty much every place is advertising for staff. Casual staff are really hard to find, accommodation houses are finding it hard to get cleaners and skilled staff such as chefs are in high demand

Merimbula Chamber of Commerce president Nigel Ayling

Mr Ayling said the effect of the long weekend numbers meant that some pizza places which might sell 300 pizzas on a very busy night over the Christmas period, had sold out in an hour and a half and had nothing left.

Apart from capacity, there are other issues, Mr Ayling said.

"Pretty much every place is advertising for staff. Casual staff are really hard to find, accommodation houses are finding it hard to get cleaners and skilled staff such as chefs are in high demand," he said.

"One restaurant had chefs lined up but then couldn't find anywhere for them to live."

Food supply is also seen as another issue with potential delays to deliveries coming from Victoria, Mr Ayling said.

The long weekend was a warning shot. You could imagine what it could be like here with the borders open.

Merimbula Chamber of Commerce president Nigel Ayling

With a very visible pent up demand in Victoria, there is concern that issues and potential solutions need to be discussed.

"The long weekend was a warning shot. You could imagine what it could be like here with the borders open," Mr Ayling said.

"We have six to eight weeks to do this but first we have to get everyone in the room to have the discussion. We need cafes, restaurants and clubs to turn up."

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Mr Ayling said discussion around food trucks, trying to entice food retailers into ready-to-operate venues such as the empty Hungry's and Booktique - if the landlords were willing to work with shorter leases - could be discussed.

The chamber will be inviting representatives from council, employment agencies and other business support groups to provide input and assistance.

"We certainly don't have all the answers" Mr Ayling said, "but if we can get everyone in a room together talking about the issues, hopefully we can help find some solutions or support."

The meeting will be held at Merimbula RSL on Monday, November 2 at 5.30pm. Anyone interested should RSVP via the Merimbula Chamber of Commerce Facebook group.

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