Rise of the Midrange Diner

Dec 3, 2014

Forget the starched tablecloths and snobby service – as food trends go, traditional fine dining is officially on the wane, and closures of several big name restaurants only confirm it. But while consumers continue to move away from high-end eating, it’s not all doom and gloom for the industry. Simultaneously we’re seeing that ‘fast-casual’ and midrange eateries are thriving; and claiming a considerable portion of the market share in the process.

In recent years, the rise of restaurants serving trendy ‘street food’ and upmarket spins on fast food classics has heralded a noticeable casualisation of good food. Gone are the days when eating out meant booking ahead and committing a whole night to a multi-course dining experience; today’s diners are still looking for quality but they want it relaxed and affordable – with little commitment and plenty of buzz. And although they might be spending less per head, diners in our capital cities are heading out much more frequently.

The same can be seen in Europe and the US, where many restaurateurs are doing away with tradition and capturing a bigger slice of the market by offering a more casual, accessible style of dining.

In line with this global trend, several big name Australian chefs best known for their more formal offerings are also heeding the call and focusing on low-cost, high-turnover dining too.

In Melbourne, MasterChef judge and multi-venue restaurateur, George Calombaris downsized his flagship restaurant The Press Club last year to make way for Gazi; a casual, all-day diner serving “dirty Greek street food” like soft-shell crab souvlakis and hot chips with feta and garlic oil.

In what has proven to be an economically savvy move, Calombaris launched his souvlaki chain Jimmy Grant’s around the same time, and business is booming there too; with three busy outlets already thriving and plans for several more in the pipeline, including interstate locations.

The old adage, “Feed the poor and get rich, feed the rich and get poor” has never been truer for Australian restaurateurs, and economically speaking, Calombaris’s latest business move makes a lot of sense. Once known for his molecular gastronomy and multi-course degustations, Calombaris’s new business model centres on high-volume, quick turnover and minimal labour. Staffing is lean and customer service is kept simple; customers order and pay at the counter, and wait for their name to be called out – just like an old-fashioned fish and chip shop.

Meanwhile, Neil Perry of Sydney’s Rockpool recently announced plans to launch a new hamburger joint, Burger Project in Sydney later this year. Naturally enough, Perry’s won’t be your average burger; his version will feature top-quality, grass-fed Cape Grim beef, Barossa Valley bacon and other carefully sourced ingredients, crafting a distinctly more memorable ‘fast food’ experience. And given that he’s looking to roll out additional outlets in Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Dubai over the next 12 months, it’s safe to assume that Perry has considerable confidence in the viability of the new venture.

Much has been said in the industry about the “death of fine dining”, though most restaurateurs and industry pundits agree that – despite current trends – there will always be a market for the type of high end, occasional dining experiences that restaurants like Sydney’s Quay and Melbourne’s Vue de Monde provide.

It’s unlikely that Australians will completely do away with restaurants that offer high levels of service and sophistication, but Australia-wide statistics show that, rather than saving up for a special occasion dinner as we did in days gone by, Aussie diners are now likely to eat out for less but do it more frequently.

The rise of social media and food blogs has also meant that new eateries are often surrounded by lots of hype and online chatter. In some sense, this has meant that expectations (of food and service sophistication) are lower, but for a midrange restaurant to work, there has to be a sense of buzz or ‘X-factor’.

For today’s new generation of diners – think tech-savvy Gen Y’s with no kids and healthy disposable incomes – it’s the thrill of discovering somewhere new and cool (and bragging about it via social media) that has replaced the aspects of eating out that we used to value; things like linen tablecloths, attentive service and a switched-on sommelier.

In the case of Calombaris’ Jimmy Grant’s, customers are perfectly happy to eat their souvlaki straight from the paper wrapper while perched on up-turned milk crates in the neighbouring laneway. Add to that the edgy Fitzroy location and priceless cache of eating in an establishment owned by one of Australia’s most recognised TV chefs and you suddenly have that ‘X-factor’.

When you’re paying less than $10 for a meal, you don’t exactly expect linen napkins and bone-handled cutlery. But if there’s something to talk about (i.e. the Calombaris connection, the graffiti-lined laneway) then there’s a huge value-add and things like service and napkins cease to be so relevant.

So while many in the industry are struggling to find an audience with the old model of entrée-main-dessert and starched linen, that’s not to say that diners are staying home and saving their money. In fact it’s quite the opposite. The good news for the restaurant industry is that there’s an increasing market for fun, affordable, come-anytime establishments that offer something new and fresh. The potential for replicating and franchising businesses at this level is proving to be healthy, too, which is good food for thought.

Written by Leanne Clancy

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