Opinion: End of an Era – changing tastes

Last week I wrote about the closure of Sizzler.

Sizzler is an important icon. As I wrote, it was more than just a restaurant. It was an institution. It taught many people to eat out. It was popular. It had queues.

Sizzler did not become unpopular. To some extent, it was a victim of its own success. It trained several generations of people how to eat out … how to enjoy commensality – which they did. And, it trained thousands of young people in the art of hospitality, many of whom went on to open cafés and restaurants of their own – including a couple of well-known celebrity chefs.

Despite its success, Sizzler slowly got overtaken by other offerings. Like an aging maiden aunt, it became less important in our lives and we had other places to be. We promised we’d call back soon. But time got away from us. And the avocado on toast at the local café seemed better value. Moreover, you didn’t have to queue.

Gastronomy is constantly evolving. It is moulded by changing consumer tastes. By changing economics. And by external factors like the environment and pandemics.

Sizzler was struggling before COVID-19 came along. COVID simply finished it off. The buffet cannot survive in a pandemic world. And Sizzler is just one of many restaurants that will close due to COVID. But COVID did not cause their death. It just accelerated it.

The hospitality industry has always been tough. Costs are high and profit margins are very slim. There are few barriers to entry and many operators lack basic business skills. Pre-COVID, the average life of a restaurant was just 18 months and 50 per cent of venues failed to see their third birthday. Two years ago, a thousand venues were reviewed for the 2018 Gault&Millau Restaurant Guide. Within 12 months, 32 per cent of those restaurants either closed, re-named or underwent a major transformation in branding.

COVID has reshaped our eating-out industry. It has forced out the weak and unprofitable. It has reduced the over-supply of venues. It has forced us to look at alternatives like premium takeout. It has encouraged pre-paid bookings. It has renewed our love of al fresco dining. It has inspired new flexible dining spaces. It has strengthened cleaning and food safety protocols. And it has given us time to sit back and reflect on the future.

Many chefs have had time to pause and re-evaluate their lives. They have discovered what a normal life can look like. Many have moved to quieter, more sociable locations or have left the service industry, focusing on other food businesses.

And diners have had time to re-evaluate what they want from a meal experience. Most people want to get out and socialise. But we are still wary. When someone sneezes, we pause – there is still an element of fear and a lack of control. We are anxious. We need security. We gravitate to the safe and comfortable. We actually like the social distancing rules – there is more space in restaurants and cafés. We still want the little indulgences – but we are economising. We don’t see the value in expensive fine dining any more. We like the better quality takeaways and pub meals. Consumers want simple, social, convivial meal experiences.

The industry is changing. Fine dining is on the decline, the low end is moving upmarket and the high end is moving down. The growth is in the middle, in the highly competitive “fast casual” dining.

Consumers are seeking comfort and safety. They are seeking quality. But they also want good value. Fine dining will survive – but it is the more casual places that will thrive.

Consumers are seeking casual, light, fresh exciting dishes.  The “fusion” style of cooking is particularly popular in contemporary Australia, inspired by a melting pot of cultures, particularly those of the Pacific Rim and South East Asia. The emphasis is on simplicity and balance, resulting in food that is fresh, light and vibrant, and full of contrasting flavours and textures, often incorporating bush tucker, intertwined with Asian techniques – a new Aussie Cuisine.

We no longer seek the old-fashioned meat and three vegetables or steak and salad that Sizzler and other traditional restaurants pioneered. We have moved on to light, fresh, vibrant flavours – with smaller portions – and lower prices.

Healthy food, vegetarian and vegan are all growing. But so is indulgence. We are still filling up on fatty fast food, full of flavour and comfort. Small indulgences are important – they make us feel good. Sales of chocolate biscuits are up.

Food – like a lot of fashion – is cyclic. Back in the late 1700s, on the back of the French Revolution, chefs started their own restaurants. The old “bill of fare” and “table d’hôte” menus found in taverns, pubs and public eateries gave way to “à la carte”. “Service à la française” gave way to the more practical “Service à la russe” – which is the basis of the service style we see in most restaurants today.

But the cycle is turning. “Table d’hôte” and “Prix Fixe” are returning. Simple, short menus with one price. Restaurants like Gerard’s in Brisbane, now offer a daily fixed price menu – a “table d’hôte”.

Gastronomy is not static. The hospitality industry has always been dynamic and innovative, changing rapidly with trends and tastes. Tastes will continue to change and evolve. And COVID has helped to accelerate this change …

By Jeremy Ryland
24 November 2020

Photo by fauxels from Pexels

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