December 5, 2023


Professional waiter experts

Hospitality leaders swap kitchen nightmares for career progression and better conditions

Mahalia Layzell was 12 when she got her first taste of hospitality.

“I started washing dishes in fine dining restaurants in the late 80s … [where] my brother was an apprentice chef,” Mahalia says.

“In the 90s and early 2000s hospitality was a very serious career choice.

A lady wearing glasses and a chef's uniform stands next to a coffee roaster smiling.
Mahalia in her early coffee roasting days in the 2000s.(Supplied: Mahalia Layzell)

She worked her way up to waiter and then chef’s apprentice at a time when the industry was changing.

“And then cafe came … [and it] took over from fine dining.”

As a result a new culture of eating and drinking out often formed, changing the standard of service and professionalism.

“I think Australians went through a stage of looking down at service staff, especially in the corporate world,” Mahalia says.

A perception Mahalia has managed to smash at her roastery and cafe, Mahalia Coffee, based in Robe on South Australia’s Limestone Coast.

A woman stands in the driveway of a business chatting to a man in a post uniform delivering a box.
Mahalia Layzell chats with a regular delivery man in Robe.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

She represents a growing cohort of Australians who have made making coffee into a career, venturing into roasting and eventually starting their own business.

And unlike the businesses where she was “treated badly”, she’s determined to make hospitality a better and more sustainable career for her staff.

Others are seeking the same.

Building a better culture in hospitality

In Melbourne, pastry chef and business owner Boris Portnoy gives staff permanent roles where possible.

A men in a chef's apron stands against a brick wall holding a bread loaf smiling.
 Boris Portnoy at his Melbourne bakery and coffee spot, All Are Welcome.(Supplied: Boris Portnoy )

“We thought that to retain talent, we would need to work with them but we need to also pay them fairly.

“So we try and have a minimum of three days.”

Having worked “very hard” as a pastry chef in a three-star Michelin restaurant in the United States, he knows the difference good management can make.

“What I really liked about working there, in that formal environment, is that you can be a professional,” Boris says.

“What I hate about it is how advantageous it is, especially for young people. Because they feel they need to eat a lot of dirt [to progress] in hospitality.”

A young woman wearing an apron stocks a shelf of baked goods in a cafe.
All Are Welcome is a Fair Plate Accredited Employer, a certification given to businesses that pay staff correctly.(Supplied: Boris Portnoy)

Secure employment, team building and career progression have become staples for the staff at his businesses, Gray and Gray Bread and Wine and All Are Welcome.

“When everyone feels they’re on the same kind of ground, we can start team building and culture building,” Boris says.

Five young people in chef's uniforms sit around a wooden table eating under a lamp.
Gray and Gray Bread and Wine staff share a meal.(Supplied: Boris Portnoy)

“You don’t have to spend all that time training your staff, instead you can work with the current staff and make better processes and decisions.”

While becoming more common, Mahalia and Boris’s efforts aren’t the norm.

As director of the United Workers Union, Karma Lord sees the very worst of the industry.

A cup of coffee sits on a table next to a canister of sugar.
Hospitality has the highest level of casualisation according to the ABS.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“They’re often suffering from wage theft in one form or another, high instances of sexual harassment, and, especially now during COVID, really high instances of mental health problems.

“It is unfortunate that for a lot of people they don’t stick around in the industry because their early experiences can put them off.”

Career progression

As well as fair pay and a respectful work environment, room for progression is key for ongoing work.

Sanremo’s Victorian manager Tim Sweet had no idea his start in hospitality as a dishie at age 14 would lead to a long and passionate career in coffee.

A man in a hooded jumper stands next to lush green coffee plants.
Tim Sweet at Tamborine Mountain Coffee Plantation, where he worked for seven years producing coffee. (Supplied: Timothy Sweet)

“The place where I worked allowed me to drink coffee if there was a mistake with [it],” Tim says.

“I used to enjoy playing a bit of a game with a barista that I had a very good friendship with at the time. I would come out and try and guess what was wrong with the coffee.

While being a barista wasn’t as glamorous or trendy, or as well paid, back then, Tim says it’s a very good and financially viable job today.