Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - On Sunday - Next week Matt looks at how tech­nol­ogy could change how we eat out.

@mattscra­vat @Mattscra­vat

EACH YEAR we pro­duce the de­li­cious. 100, the round-up of our favourite and best restau­rants in Queens­land, Vic­to­ria and New South Wales. While we cel­e­brate the places we love, it pays to re­mem­ber that never be­fore have small restau­rants (and a mas­sive 92 per cent of our restau­rants and cafés are small, em­ploy­ing fewer than 20 staff) been un­der such in­tense pres­sure. Ex­tend­ing be­yond con­stants such as ris­ing costs and the skills short­age, chal­lenges to their ex­is­tence come in var­i­ous guises.


Yes, chain restau­rants may be cheap and quick, but too of­ten they of­fer low­est­com­mon-de­nom­i­na­tor din­ing. The is­sue is sel­dom the staff – many an av­er­age chain meal has been lifted to en­joy­able heights by car­ing ser­vice – but rather the board­room de­ci­sions made to im­prove the bot­tom line, be they cut­ting staffing lev­els, skimp­ing on in­gre­di­ent qual­ity or mov­ing the cook­ing off-site where cheaper work­ers or tech­nol­ogy are em­ployed to re­duce costs. The prob­lem is that chains suck dol­lars out of the din­ing pot and their lower cost base makes it eas­ier for them to be cheaper than smaller stand­alone busi­nesses.


More than a fast-food joint, less than a fully fledged res­tau­rant, fast-ca­sual eater­ies have ex­ploded glob­ally, ris­ing by 550 per cent in the past decade or so, ac­cord­ing to mar­ket re­search firm Euromon­i­tor. This boom is yet an­other call on the fam­ily’s din­ing dol­lar and fast-ca­su­als are a far closer threat to restau­rants and cafés than fast-food joints. And fast-ca­su­als’ in­creased in­ter­est in push­ing a health or ar­ti­san prove­nance bar­row – some­thing the big­ger fast-food chains have only dab­bled in – fur­ther threat­ens smaller places that have made this po­si­tion­ing their thing.

A fur­ther worry is that these fast­ca­sual chains will in­creas­ingly re­duce their wage bills and increase turnover by spend­ing big on tech­nol­ogy such as au­to­mated kiosk or­der­ing or trends like re­mov­ing ta­ble ser­vice.


Rents and leases are in­creas­ingly ex­pen­sive so it’s no sur­prise that tiny hole-in-the-wall joints, food trucks and pop-ups with lim­ited seat­ing are more pop­u­lar than ever. Let the pun­ters take their food out­side to eat in the park, in their car or at home is the mantra. This not only saves on rent but also staff – no call for clear­ing ta­bles or wash­ing dishes – whether you’re talking a sexy kiosk sell­ing ve­gan food like Jano’s in Fin­land or the pro­lif­er­a­tion of food trucks across this fine land.


The growth in fast-ca­sual din­ing has gone hand in hand with that of food halls in shop­ping cen­tres and other de­vel­op­ment din­ing op­tions. These of­fer­ings in lo­ca­tions where park­ing isn’t a prob­lem com­pared with high-street din­ing hubs are also grow­ing in so­phis­ti­ca­tion.


Top chefs both here and over­seas are giv­ing their names to fast-ca­sual con­cepts that re­quire vary­ing lev­els of in­volve­ment rang­ing from de­vel­op­ing the menu and over­see­ing the op­er­a­tion to be­ing no more than play­ing the Ron­ald Mcdon­ald-type role of a fig­ure­head for a new brand in re­turn for a fat li­cens­ing cheque.


The growth of de­liv­ery ser­vices has be­come a dou­ble-edged sword for small restau­rants – even be­fore we start tak­ing about drone de­liv­ery and the use of


driver­less cars to drop off your but­ter chicken and gar­lic naan. While such ser­vices can in­tro­duce small restau­rants to a new gen­er­a­tion of cus­tomers, it means they aren’t just com­pet­ing against their neighbours for take­away sales but against the best-known names across the city. In the US, the res­tau­rant in­dus­try has been grum­bling about ev­ery­thing from loss of brand value to high com­mis­sion costs of these third­party de­liv­ery com­pa­nies. There are sim­i­lar mur­murs here too but the end game for some big play­ers isn’t about in­creas­ing the amount of food sold out of their kitchen but some­thing far more rad­i­cal – the con­cept that fol­lows.


A vir­tual res­tau­rant is where your or­der is ful­filled not by the res­tau­rant it­self but by a ‘black kitchen’ out in the ’burbs where dishes from any num­ber of un­re­lated restau­rants are pro­duced un­der li­cence. This poses an in­ter­est­ing mo­ral ques­tion: if my or­der is made in an off-site kitchen shouldn’t I be told?

These food fac­to­ries with no seats and no shopfront are the log­i­cal tra­jec­tory from a chain res­tau­rant’s centralise­d kitchen and look to­wards a fu­ture time when a ‘bricks and mor­tar’ op­er­a­tion is just for mar­ket­ing and brand­ing pur­poses – and the odd photo shoot. Call me old-fash­ioned but that’s not a res­tau­rant I want to (not) dine in.


Fear not, dear reader, be­cause the so­lu­tion is in our hands, and our wal­lets. We are the bul­wark against the threat of be­com­ing like the UK and the US where the same dozen chains dom­i­nate the din­ing op­tions. If we value the great small restau­rants that form the back­bone of our din­ing cul­ture, all we have to do is to sup­port them.

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