Catering to the middle market

“Take a new look at timing and decide if opening for lunch with easy fare like coffee, sandwiches and pizza slices might be far easier and bring in more dollars than staying open late at dinner,” says Nassima Kennedy, hospitality lecturer, International College of Management Sydney. Pic credit: Katarzyna Białasiewicz /123rf

With takeaway continuing to boom and fine dining on the rise, the focus is being put on mid-market dining. By John Burfitt

With 2021 running at full steam, there’s definitely good news for those in the restaurant game, but some warnings as well.

According to research agency IBIS World, business in Australian restaurants is predicted to increase 5.1 per cent throughout 2021, with the delivery/takeaway sector to continue its boom. Market researcher Roy Morgan reveals Australians over the age of 14 using food delivery services has doubled to nearly four million since 2018

At the other end of the spectrum, special occasion fine dining is predicted to expand, with punters making the most of the end of pandemic restrictions by treating themselves to high-end dining to make up for what they missed out on last year.

But it’s the mid-market restaurants that some are concerned could be about to face a squeeze. The IBIS report predicts Australian discretionary income will fall this year, placing further limits on the recovery in restaurant revenue. Which means, a range of industry experts agree, it’s time to take action with a few key tweaks to the business to provide the best path through 2021. 

Read the room

Silver Chef industry insights consultant Ken Burgin remains defiantly upbeat about the middle market but does warn attention needs to be paid. “You need to consider whether your restaurant is really striking the right chords with your clientele,” he says. 

Aspects like comfort levels, the style of the dining room, look of the menu and how the business presents all need to be high on the agenda, Burgin says.

“Decide if you are really meeting your key demographic,” Burgin says. “For instance, if your market is 35 plus, then consider if playing booming rap music is really what they want to hear and if you have broken chairs, fix them. Pay attention to the finer details if you want to stay in business.”

Up the service standards

Careless front-of-house staff, who’ve had little or no training, will not cut it in the future as diners demand higher levels of service, veteran consultant Michael Fischer says. 

“Standards have to rise. Well-trained staff will become a valued commodity and lesser staff will either have to learn quickly or get out.”

Making sure staff are paid in accordance with award rates must also become the standard, he adds. “That might make dining out more expensive, and to justify that, all standards of service need to rise.” For some restaurants, that includes standards of delivery options, especially those who have taken delivery in-house in order to keep costs down.

Diversify the offering

Making alterations to the current line-up could be an essential to ensure your restaurant space is fully utilised, Nassima Kennedy, hospitality lecturer at the International College of Management Sydney, says.

“Take a new look at timing and decide if opening for lunch with easy fare like coffee, sandwiches and pizza slices might be far easier and bring in more dollars than staying open late at dinner,” she advises. 

Then there’s the range of added extras, aside from the take-home kits that have become so popular. “I know one Thai restaurant doing well with sales of spices and sauces, another selling their own wines and another selling picnic packs. It’s essential to look at how more options than just a dining experience could significantly maximise restaurant income.”

The value proposition

“When Australians tighten their belts, they traditionally don’t go out less; they just trade down a bit,” Burgin says. So sharpening up the value of the menu is an essential, possibly with a more streamlined but varied offering.

“Rather than only having a $35 seafood plate, you might include a $26 seafood deal as a second option,” he says. “You also might offer a special dessert for two rather than just solo desserts. It’s about perceived value of choices, which also doesn’t result in added work for the kitchen.”

New technology

Technology continues as a leader of change, especially with the growth of table ordering online platform apps like me&u and Mr Yum.

Diners using such apps on their smartphones can scan a QR code, open up a menu, order their meals, send it through to the kitchen, as well as split bills and finalise payment. 

“It’s a very different customer experience, but it’s actually becoming increasingly popular,” Kennedy says. “For some diners, this is ideal for how they like to dine out, which allows your front-of-house staff to then make the most of serving the others in the room.”

Market the message

Upping the ante on digital marketing should mean a more focused approach, Michael Fischer says.

“The presentation of websites and social media needs to be improved,” he says. A plan that incorporates well-presented images, clear descriptions and smart deals keeps diners engaged and interested in returning.

“You must know who your customers have been as well as who they are likely to be into the future,” he adds.

Consistent messaging and living up to your marketing are a must, Nassima Kennedy adds.

“If the picture of a dish on your Instagram page looks nothing like what you serve on the table, then you’re in trouble. Be smart about what you’re promoting, and then deliver upon it, and do that so well they keep coming back.”