While the chips are down, restaurateurs will need to pull out all the stops, reports Michelle Rowe
ESTAURANT manager Terry Soukoulis saw the writing on the wall six months ago. Not only had the lucrative business lunch market dried up — ‘‘ people just don’t have two to three hours to spend over lunch any more’’ — but his restaurant, the Adelaide fine-diner Auge, started getting unusual phone calls.
‘‘ Secretaries have been ringing up to query what the extra $15 or so on the bill was for. It might have been a tip or something, but before businesses never questioned expenses. Now they’re ringing to check. We’ve never seen this in eight years of trading.’’
Bargain-price options: Terry Soukoulis
With a recession looming, food and labour costs rising and salaries shrinking, Soukoulis will be far from alone in his experience. As cash-strapped diners cut back on eating out and companies
Rising to the challenge: Menus must become more creative, says Kylie Kwong put the brakes on business expenses, 2009 is shaping up to be a very rocky year for the hospitality industry.
As fierce British food critic A.A. Gill has put it, the onus will be on the restaurateur to give the customer what they want, or suffer the consequences. And what the customer wants, Gill says, is value for money. ‘‘ You don’t need to be a divine called Doris to work out that [2009 is] going to be all about price,’’ he wrote bluntly in The Sunday Times . ‘‘ Not necessarily cheapness, but value. A lot of restaurants are going to go out of business, because they can’t adapt, don’t have the skill and don’t really get what it is they’re selling.’’
But just how can restaurants cut costs and pass on the savings to diners? Will money-spinning items such as expensive side dishes need a rethink? Will the ubiquitous amuse-bouche and predessert ‘‘ palate cleanser’’ disappear from the dining landscape?
Will, as NewYorkMagazine recently reported, chefs start replacing foie gras and truffles with comfort food, fresh local ingredients and bargains?
Soukoulis was savvy enough to go to his customers for an answer. ‘‘ We sent emails to 3000 people on our database to see what it was they wanted. They said they’d like to spend less time and money on dining during the day,’’ he says. As a result, the bar area of Auge is being renovated to include an antipasto and pasta bar for people looking for a quick, inexpensive meal, night or day.
It has also launched a bargain-priced set-lunch menu, something other toptier restaurants are doing.
‘‘ We introduced a $39 two-course lunch and sent out a group email to all our customers on January 1. We were inundated with bookings,’’ says Soukoulis. ‘‘ And it’s cost effective for us, too. In the past, people would stay three or four hours for lunch, now it’s an hour and a half max, so there are no more five or six-hour shifts at lunchtime for staff.’’
For diners, the set-price lunch menu is a win-win situation: the chance to eat in a restaurant they might otherwise visit only on a special occasion, and the feeling they’re getting excellent value for money when they’re watching every cent.
Other fine-diners around the country are offering excellent value set-lunch menus; a couple of these previously introduced such options to boost custom during slow trading periods, such as post-Christmas January. The list includes Sydney’s restaurant of the year, Quay, at Circular Quay, which offers two courses for $75, and Melbourne stalwart Cafe Di Stasio, in St Kilda, which has recently taken out advertisements in a broadsheet newspaper to promote its $30 set lunch, which includes a glass of wine.
Also in Melbourne, Shannon Bennett’s city-centre Vue de Monde has a lunch special priced at $55 for two courses, side dishes and a glass of wine from Tuesday to Friday, while Jacques Reymond in Windsor offers two courses plus coffee and petits fours for $48 on Thursdays and Fridays. Sydney’s Marque has a bargain $45 three-course set lunch menu on Fridays.
Kylie Kwong, who owns Billy Kwong restaurant in Sydney’s Surry Hills, says she has already noticed some minor changes in customers’ dining habits, such as the ordering of fewer dishes. But she is rising to the challenge. ‘‘ We restaurateurs have to become more creative in the way we run the business,’’ she says. ‘‘ We have to make sure our nightly specials menu is everchanging and vibrant. We have been offering fabulous whole garfish from Bermagui, deep-fried and served with Sichuan pepper and salt, for $14-$16. So inexpensive for me [to produce] and for the punter, yet so delicious.’’
Kwong says service, too, will come under the microscope at Australian restaurants. ‘‘ I think the virtues of humility and respect will go a long way, especially during this time,’’ she says. ‘‘ People will go out for one meal a week now, not three, so the question for me, the business owner, is ‘ How do I make them come to my restaurant that one night?’ The answer is by offering great food and service, excellent value, a convivial, comfy, vibrant atmosphere.’’
If British food writer Jay Rayner is correct, it’s the high-flyers who will be hardest hit by the economic downturn. In his Guardian Word of Mouth blog, Rayner writes: ‘‘ Those who might otherwise eat out at the top of the market will head to the mid-market and those who usually head for the middle will go for cheaper options.’’
And word seems to have filtered down to leading chefs, both here and abroad, with several launching spin-off eateries. Cornwall-based television chef Rick Stein recently opened a fish-and-chip shop, which runs independently of his Padstow fine-diners. ‘‘ What’s happening [in Britain] is all the well-known chefs are opening cheaper places,’’ says Stein. ‘‘ We’re having wonderful success with our fish-and-chip shop and looking at sites quite close by for another one or two. If done well it’s a very attractive and popular form of eating out. Goodvalue restaurants is where it’s going.’’
Also in Britain, Jamie Oliver is rolling out a string of affordable neighbourhood Italian restaurants called Jamie’s Italian; Gordon Ramsay has moved into gastropub dining, and Marco Pierre White has teamed up with British jockey Frankie Dettori to create the Frankie’s Italian Bar & Grill family restaurant chain.
On home soil, George Calombaris of Melbourne’s The Press Club late last year launched an informal Brunswick taverna called Hellenic Republic, Sydney chef Justin North opened Etch, a more casual option than his city-centre fine-diner Becasse, and Sean Connolly added Sean’s Kitchen, a seafood, steak and tapas restaurant, to his upmarket Astral restaurant in the Star City Casino complex.
Sydney restaurateur Neil Perry, meanwhile, has spent millions of dollars on two new Sydney projects: the recently opened Spice Temple, with a menu based on the hawker market food of China, and its soon-to-open higherend sibling, Rockpool Bar & Grill Sydney, in the same heritage-listed Hunter Street CBD building.
Perry concedes the timing of the project is not ideal. ‘‘ I guess whether it’s perfect timing or not, you can’t just change momentum,’’ he says. ‘‘ If you’re three-quarters of the way through it and the whole world falls apart you’ve got to keep going because stopping a project like this, with the holding costs, would be impossible, really.’’
About $10 million has been spent on the fit-out alone of the two restaurants, but Perry is philosophical about what lies ahead.
‘‘ It’s going to be a really tough year . . . but one of the great things is that now and then you have to have a clean-out of a lot of operators who were only surviving because the market was so buoyant that you could make money doing anything.
‘‘ People will make sure that the places that are good, at every level, survive. Whether you’re doing good coffee and focaccia or fine dining, and all the things in between, if your product is good, the experience is good and the value is good, I think you’ll survive.’’
Rather than discount meals, Perry says he will focus on streamlining his operations if the economic storm worsens. Unfortunately for Perry and his fellow Sydney restaurateurs, early signs are that NSW may be the state hardest hit by the downturn, heavily reliant as it is on tourism dollars and corporate accounts to keep diners coming through the door.
‘‘ I was talking to one supplier and he says we’re about 10 per cent down in NSW,’’ says NSW Restaurant & Catering chief executive Robert Goldman. ‘‘ The whole economy here is worse off, we’re just not travelling as well as the rest of the country.’’
Goldman says suburban restaurants, however, seem to be holding their own. Muriel Chen, owner of Blue Eye Dragon restaurant in Sydney’s Pyrmont, caters to a largely local crowd, with many regulars. She says there has been no negative impact on her balance sheet: ‘‘ In fact we’re doing 20 per cent better than we were last year.’’
It seems that personal touch, as well as excellent value for money, is one way restaurants can insulate themselves against customer attrition.
‘‘ If people are spending money, they need to know that they are getting value for money and will be looked after,’’ says Soukoulis.
‘‘ They don’t want to take their chances on places they don’t really know about.’’
Adds Kwong: ‘‘ When the credit crunch first hit us here in Australia, my maitre’d Kin Chen said to me, ‘ Don’t worry, during these dark times it just means that we all have to shine brighter’.
‘‘ And I couldn’t agree more. We all have to work a little bit harder, and that never hurt anyone, did it?’’