Crunch time

While the chips are down, res­tau­ra­teurs will need to pull out all the stops, re­ports Michelle Rowe

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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?’’

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