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.
THE GROWTH OF CHAINS
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.
THE GROWTH OF FAST- CASUAL
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.
FOOD TRUCKS, POP-UPS AND HOLE-IN-THE-WALL JOINTS
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.
NEXT- GEN TAKEAWAY
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.