A survey of employers and industry commentators published this week reveals a third have run into serious difficulties recruiting skilled staff such as chefs, while a fifth have had problems finding kitchen porters.
Where candidates do come forward for jobs, few are found to be adequately qualified, according to the study. More than one in eight of those surveyed felt there was a "mismatch between the applicants and the jobs available".
More than two-thirds thought there were too few people leaving college with good training.
The survey, commissioned by Mayday, a London catering staff recruitment consultancy, confirms long-standing warnings of a growing staffing crisis in the catering industry.
Last autumn, restauranteur Terence Conran opened a new London training school for chefs to help close the skills gap amid rumours that he was unable to find suitably-trained staff for his string of establishments.
The move reignited criticism of some further education college catering departments and of new catering qualifications. However, the latest research is unusual in placing the blame for recruitment troubles squarely with the industry itself.
Almost everyone surveyed agreed that catering had an image problem, and was not viewed as a "career of choice" by many young people. That was compounded by pay which sometimes slumped so low that potential staff were caught in the "benefits trap", in which they could expect to receive more from remaining unemployed.
Participants in the study were divided over whether a minimum wage, a Labour party policy, would help the catering industry. A fifth felt it would help attract and retain better quality staff, but slightly more thought it would increase unemployment.
As the industry, whose contract arm alone employs more than 115,000 people, develops its strategy for the next millennium, leading members met this week to debate issues raised by the research.
Jane Sunley, Mayday managing director, said: "We have far more jobs than people to fill them and the situation is getting worse. We knew there was a shortage of staff in the industry, but the research showed it to be far more widespread than we imagined."