Mouthing off

Author: MAYA KERTHYASA
Photography: TOM BINGHAM

It's no secret that it's hardly a piece of cake in the restaurant game at the moment. With rising food and staffing costs, shrinking margins and increased competition, it has never been tougher to be in the business of restaurants. We asked chefs from our top 100 restaurants what the biggest challenges are facing restaurants today. Here's what they said.

Penalty rates
No surprises here: most chefs we quizzed responded with comments about penalty rates. "Compounding increases in labour penalty rates in an industry that thrives on weekends, nights and public holidays," says Teage Ezard, "is a challenge that decreases net profit, shuts more restaurants and could possibly cause reduced trading hours in our industry." For Rockpool's Phil Wood, the problem begins with lack of government understanding. "The main challenge to the industry is not having proper recognition from the government as being an actual industry," he says. "We are considered tradies, but our needs are so different from a builder or a bricklayer. Until we have the proper support from the government in regard to penalty rates and our own industry-specific immigration policies so we have the ability to attract well-trained staff from overseas, we will always struggle to function at a high level." Peter Gilmore of Quay believes increasing costs could affect the types of restaurants we see in the future. "The high costs that are associated with running a cutting-edge restaurant in Australia could mean less innovation in the future and more formula-based, homogenised type restaurants," he says. And while Sepia's Martin Benn is keen to train and employ more staff himself," he says "the cost of doing so is unrealistic."

Sustainability
While the bottom line still rules, many chefs were just as concerned about food ethics and sustainability. "The biggest challenge is really sustainability," says Neil Perry. "Not only for ingredients and provenance of those items, but for the environment and our impact on it." And for Kylie Kwong it's about striking a balance between lowering her environmental impact and maintaining a financially viable business. "Running Billy Kwong with an aim to reduce the business's carbon footprint as much as possible is always going to be a challenge. Using 'green and sustainable' produce costs a considerable amount more than using conventional produce, yet I wouldn't have it any other way, as I always want to be able to offer the very best quality I can, and I want to run my business with integrity," she says.

Skills shortages and staffing issues
Teage Ezard wasn't alone in lamenting the skills shortage. "This has a major impact on training and quality of product," he says. Tetsuya Wakuda says it's not only about finding staff, it's about finding the right staff: "The restaurant business is one of the toughest industries to be in, but it's so rewarding to see our guests happy - that is what we strive and work towards. The challenge of the future is to find staff who have the passion to be in this industry." Aaron Turner of Loam agrees. "It's extremely important that we as an industry work to shift the current perception of hospitality," he says. "In order to attract talented, progressive individuals we need to demonstrate that our industry can provide a wonderful, fulfilling career, rather than just a part-time university job."

Passion and vision
There were many comments about passion and vision in the industry. Jacques Reymond fears that passion alone may not be enough to support small restaurants. "I'm concerned that in the future the hospitality industry will be controlled by groups and that most shareholders in the groups are not from hospitality," he says. "I feel concerned for the small, passionate, dedicated food-loving chef who wants to succeed and has to compete against these financial groups of backers." For Ben Shewry the key to staying passionate lies in remaining healthy. "Operating hands-on at a high level for a sustained period is a big commitment physically and mentally. I find if the body is feeling great, it's much easier to keep up the creativity." But, he adds, the motivation remains the same: "To keep coming up with new ways of exciting our customers and ourselves, and to better express our personal vision of a restaurant." Mark Best says, "According to the media, the biggest challenge will be to remain solvent." But he's more interested in continuing "to add to the culinary dialogue with fresh ideas that engage with my customers and speak of Australia."

Too many restaurants
And then there's always the question of oversupply. Kylie Kwong believes there are simply far too many restaurants in Sydney in proportion to the city's population. "We're not in New York or London with their high-density populations and greater ability to sustain local business. Yet I do not know the answer to this," she says. "The continual opening of eateries and bars is a direct reflection of this city's obsession with great food, wine and good coffee - this is a great quality, is it not?"







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