Trends and challenges for Australia’s restaurant industry in 2018

Three industry experts reveal their insights into what will be hot and what problems restaurateurs may face this year. 

Phee Gardner, hospitality consultant

Expect to see more short-term leases and ‘moveable restaurants’ in the coming year, according to hospitality consultant Phee Gardner. She believes there will be an increase in restaurants or collectives that move frequently to another neighbourhood, region, state or even country. 

She also envisages more community-based restaurants exploring ideas, or community messages. That could be food-based ideas, such as showcasing overlooked and underutilised ingredients, or social awareness addressing issues that affect the industry and public alike.  

There will be a continued focus on finding ways to upcycle and reduce food waste in 2018. Chefs will use more plant-based dishes and aim to utilise the whole plant, not necessarily on the same dish but throughout the menu. And there will also be greater use of algae, seaweed and sea-based plants. 

Gardner, who was project director for the Appetite for Excellence national hospitality awards program for nine years, believes restaurateurs will focus more on floor staff and recognise the need for training.

“By combining with other like-minded restaurateurs, they can tailor butchery workshops, flavour forums or transferable skills to increase knowledge, interaction and cross pollination,” she says. 

Data and payment methods may also change dramatically, with a rise in mobile payments and digital receipts to streamline the payment process through new POS systems and apps. “With Amazon moving into Australia and POS systems, customers are becoming more comfortable sharing personal data, especially when they can see the results first hand,” Gardner says. “Through advanced POS systems restaurants can customise marketing and personalise menu and dining experiences.” 

The biggest challenge the industry faces is rising costs, as well as staffing. Gardner says the industry will continue to look outside the box to find solutions to this problem.

Michael Rodrigues, Time Out Australia managing director

Venue oversupply will be a challenge in this year, Time Out Australia managing director Rodrigues believes. “Food’s been the new black for nearly a decade now,” he says. “Product education (‘it’s new’) has generated consumer interest and has been fanned by the ‘frame’ of a concurrent development – social media. Together these have combined to accelerate the rise of the independent operator with a point of difference.

“But large operating groups including in the pub and bar sector have observed this and are now participating in the restaurant industry, as are property developers who use food as content or amenity (or both) to sell apartments or lease office space.

Meanwhile, large-scale hotel operators are lifting their standards to try and retain visitor spend, particularly in light of Asian mobility. The sustained period of growth has now attracted private equity which is adding to supply, ahead of the demand curve. Garnish all the above with the twist that is lock-out in Sydney, and you have your complete challenges cocktail.”

Rodrigues warns independent operators need to be alive to the threat this oversupply poses and focus on their local or fan supporter base, rather than relying on a mass transient audience that may have churned through their doors previously. “Diversify revenue streams and aim to increase the spend per customer throughout the year, in preference to chasing mass audience,” he says.

The rapid increase in the number and scale of venues, combined with high labour costs and visa issues, is also putting pressure on staffing. “Lack of skilled staff will in turn put pressure on product quality,” he says. “Without naming names, this is already manifesting itself in the market, and has the potential to break businesses as they enter a vicious circle ie can’t deliver the product to generate the revenue to recruit the staff, who are needed to deliver the product.”

When it comes to food, Rodrigues believes we will see more commoditised ‘street-food-done-well’ offerings, either independently or via franchise, in 2018. “It’s the banh mi thing,” he says. “When we know what we like and we see it well made, we’ll eat it often.”

Indigenous ingredients will also continue to flourish. “Post Noma, these are increasingly common on menus,” he says. “We’d encourage food professionals to be sensitive in their use, and to familiarise themselves with the ethical issues, so as to avoid cultural misappropriation.”

Vegetarian dishes, Filipino cuisine and classic Italian will also become more popular.

As for technology, Rodrigues says it’s all about payments, payments, payments. “It’s on for young and old between merchants, banks, tech companies and other intermediaries,” he says. “Increasingly automated and cashless, misunderstood fees and charges, or a lack of acceptance, are barriers to consumer engagement and need to be carefully considered. Choice followed by customer experience are the restaurateurs’ consideration set here.”

Peter Hardwick, food forager at Harvest Newrybar in the Byron Bay hinterland

Food forager Peter Hardwick, from Harvest Newrybar, believes there will be greater awareness of food as medicine in 2018 and the importance of plant nutrients and feeding the gut for health. We will see more Indigenous chefs presenting their wild foods and traditional cuisines within the restaurant culture. 

There will also be ongoing emphasis on sustainable food practices in fine dining.

Hardwick believes one of the biggest challenges will be how to make seafood consumption more sustainable. “Use innovative food sources, including unutilised freshwater micro-fish like rainbow fish and Pacific blue-eye,” he says.