Hospitality

“Hardest it’s ever been”: Disrupted but not dejected, Australia’s restaurant owners discuss what’s next

Matthew Elmas /

If you’re thinking about opening a restaurant, cafe or bar, you may want to reconsider.

That was the takeaway from a gathering of business owners at the coalface of Australia’s hospitality sector in Melbourne last night, as heads come together to try and chart a path through a period of unprecedented disruption.

One restaurateur, an industry veteran at home and overseas, doesn’t mince words.

“At the moment, it’s probably the hardest it’s ever been to operate in hospitality,” he said.

“Anyone thinking about it — don’t fucking do it.”

There’s an unmistakable feeling in the room at Collingwood’s WorkSmith bar as a mix of local, interstate and even international small business owners speak about their experiences operating a restaurant in 2019.

The mood isn’t easy to identify at first. The event, run by HungryHungry, a startup selling pick-up and table ordering technology to the industry, was billed as a crisis meeting. The subject? UberEats and Deliveroo.

It’s not long before the event’s official focus gives way to a much more nuanced conversation though.

The room doesn’t lack anxiety or pessimism, and there’s a sense of frustration too. But beneath the woes, there’s a resilience, a sense of shared passion for an industry that, at least for the moment, has more questions than answers.

The conversation starts with the on-demand economy. Platforms such as UberEats and Deliveroo have expanded across Australia at breakneck speed over the last five years, and for good or bad, its wreaked havoc on the hospitality industry.

But, despite many present attendees handing over 25-33% of their delivery turnover to multinational corporations, there’s a recognition that while there are winners and losers in the emerging on-demand world, everyone has to change.

“It’s a controversial subject,” one business owner said of the on-demand economy.

“You either love it or you hate it.

“I’m not sure if I love it, and I’m definitely not sure if I hate it — but fuck, it shits me.”

Another restaurant owner decided to ditch UberEats and hasn’t looked back.

“We were losing our customers,” she said.

“There was no human interaction anymore.”

There are no illusions about the broader trends that sit behind the popularity of on-demand meal delivery.

Business owners discuss everything from the frustration of dealing with Instagram influencers trying to get a free lunch to broader changes in the types of hospitality businesses fit-for-purpose in the current climate.

How does the menu travel? Are 150-plus seat venues sustainable? Or are smaller 30-seat restaurants a smarter move? Will the hospitality industry turn into hordes of dark kitchens run out of shipping containers?

These questions point to an overriding reality recognised repeatedly by those present: customers, citizens of our new digital world, have changed.

“These kids just don’t want to talk to people,” one restaurateur observed, explaining their perspective on the rise UberEats and Deliveroo.

“These new platforms have come across at the perfect time.”

Elsewhere, restaurant owners also express concern about the experience economy and how an industry trend towards experience-first dining, seized by many in recent years, has come at the cost of return business. 

“It’s all this social media … they want to be where that person is or have that life someone else has,” one restaurant owner said.

The night ends on a sombre tone, rants had, questions asked, experiences shared.

“We still have to remain true to what our industry is,” one business owner advised.

“It’s welcoming someone with a smile, making an effort.

“Tech is never going to take that away from us, well, maybe, you never know.

“But the essence of our industry remains in all of us.”

What do you think about the future of Australia’s hospitality industry? Let me know at [email protected]

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Matthew Elmas

Matthew is the news editor at SmartCompany. You can contact him at [email protected].