WITH its freshly ground coffee and artisan breads, gourmet cafe Joe & Dough is an inviting place for a cuppa. But few Singaporeans seem to want to make or serve that cuppa.

It is not uncommon for director and co-owner Damien Koh, 31, to roll up his sleeves to provide such front-line service when his workers fall ill or go on leave.

"By going down to serve, we show we care for the front-line staff," he said, adding that this personal touch also gives his firm an edge when hiring.

Turnover is low, with many employees being there from the start three years ago.

Joe & Dough comprises a bakery and two cafes. The Hitachi Tower cafe seats 27, while the one at Suntec City seats 65. The Suntec cafe is a franchise, and the Hitachi one employs eight people - four Singaporeans and four foreigners. The 50-50 split puts it over the official limit.

Since July, foreigners can make up only 45 per cent of the total number of employees in service firms, down from 50 per cent. Such firms have until end-June 2014 to correct the situation.

Joe & Dough has begun hiring for a new outlet it plans to open by the year end.

Mr Koh is optimistic, but admits that finding staff is tricky for all firms in the industry.

He said: "The problem is that locals just don't like this kind of hands-on job." This is especially true of younger, well-educated Singaporeans, he added.

An entry-level front-line employee earns $1,300, excluding benefits, and works a 44-hour week. Mr Koh said he could raise wages by a few hundred dollars a month, but that would flatten profits and curtail future growth. "And growth is the only way I can really reward the staff," he added.

When he advertises for jobs, no locals apply. Many of his new hires are referred by existing staff. A lack of locals is a longstanding problem in the food and beverage sector, said Association of Small and Medium Enterprises president Chan Chong Beng.

But the labour crunch may improve things in the long run, he noted. "I think the Government's intention is to push everybody to the limit, so they have to up productivity."

Still, getting more workers is crucial as there are limits to improving productivity. Automation, for instance, is off the table. Said Mr Koh: "Ultimately, we are not a vending machine. You still want a human connection."