SINGAPORE may be a food oasis, but ask any eatery owner here and they will tell you that the food and beverage (F&B) industry is starved of workers.
Ask Ms Victoria Li who owns Chinese restaurant Old Hong Kong Kitchen, Mr Adrien Desbaillets of self-service chain Salad Stop!, or even Mr Mohamed Ali who sells prata at a MacPherson hawker stall, and the answer is the same: Rental and food costs may be high, but what is most pressing is the lack of manpower.
"Without manpower, you cannot run your business and this hits profit margins which affect everything else," said Mr Andrew Tjioe, president of the Restaurant Association of Singapore.
Despite a 5.6 per cent growth in wages in 2013 for the rank-and-file workers in the accommodation and food services sector, statistics show that Singaporeans are still, by and large, shunning jobs in the sector.
Job vacancies in the accommodation and food services sector rose from 5,010 as at Sept 30, 2011, to 7,740 as at Sept 30 last year. Of these, 1,800 waiters, 850 food service counter assistants and 840 cooks were needed. Most of these vacancies had been open for at least six months, with employers saying these jobs were hard to fill with locals.
This is a problem because since July 2012, the service industry's Dependency Ratio Ceiling, a quota setting the maximum number of foreign workers a firm can hire for every full-time local worker it employs, has been reduced to 40 per cent - down from 50 per cent. This is low compared with other industries, like manufacturing, for instance, which has a 60 per cent quota.
Employers told The Straits Times that with so many challenges - high rents, stiff competition, thin margins and, now, the labour crunch - it is hard to even think about productivity.
"Our profit margins are so thin already, and now, we even have to turn customers away as we don't have enough people to serve them," said Mr Wei Chan, who owns eateries Next Door Deli and Baguette. "I want to increase productivity, but I can't even spare anyone for training."
He admits his firm does not give staff benefits apart from meals because it is small and he has a tight budget. His servers are paid $1,200 to $1,500 per month.
The crunch has meant the demand on the existing pool of local workers is higher, creating what industry players call an "employee's market", he said.
Such a market is particularly tough for Mr Wee Liang Lian of chicken rice chain Wee Nam Kee.
"The work is not glamourous. Few want to put on an apron and serve chicken," he said. He now has three people running the floor, down from eight previously. "Singaporeans who decide to give it a go leave after a few months."
One 26-year-old quit in record time: half an hour. "It was a Saturday, and there were lots of customers. She got the fright of her life," said Mr Wee.
Faced with such odds, less nimble eateries have folded.
Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority data shows 511 restaurants closed last year, up from 469 in 2013. Big names that shut include zi char restaurant Zhen Zhou Dao and 16-year-old French restaurant Au Jardin. Both cited labour woes as the main reason.
"A paradigm shift is needed," said Mr Steven Hansen, director of F&B consultancy Steven Hansen & Associates. "Youth will be proud to work in the hospitality industry only when the stigma of it being an occupation of last resort has been erased."
He said higher wages and higher productivity could be effective in tweaking the industry's image in the long term.
But eateries The Straits Times spoke to said they are barely getting by each day. Sending staff for training, or restructuring, seems impossible despite government incentives being available.
The French Stall in Serangoon Road runs on a lean team of four full-timers - two kitchen staff and two servers. The 15-year-old business pays full-time servers $1,500 to $2,000 a month, up from $1,000 to $1,300 a decade ago. Chefs earn $1,700 to $3,500 per month, depending on experience.
Owner Joanna Le Henaff is still trying to replace two full-time chefs she lost in August. The hardest staff to recruit and keep, she said, are experienced Singaporeans - those who have three or more years under their belt.
She has stopped serving mashed potatoes as they take too long to sort, peel and cook. She recently raised the pay for part-timers and plans to move to a smaller place when the lease is up.
Suppliers asked her recently if she wanted to buy a tiramisu pre-mix - no sponge fingers needed. "I said, 'No, thank you.' Hopefully, I won't have to go back on my word."