After consecutive years at a rolling boil, New Zealand’s food scene is starting to simmer. Matthew Rosenberg and Felix Desmarais chew on the restaurant game’s challenges.
Mike van de Elzen’s food truck is long parked up.
These days it’s t-shirts over kitchen whites for the Muriwai-based chef.
In 2019, van de Elzen, restaurant consultant, surveys the food scene from outside the kitchen.
The award-winning restauranteur still keeps a close eye on the industry that made him – taking interest in its sweet spots and sour patches. After two years of growth, the numbers show New Zealand’s restaurant scene has dipped of late.
This week, Auckland fine dining restaurant Clooney broke hearts when its owner Tony Stewart announced it would close in October, after 13 years in business to the day. Industry figures said it was the “end of an era”.
The restaurant briefly closed last year following a stoush between Stewart and his then head chef, but reopened months later with a new chef and menu. Stewart said this week the business had become difficult to manage, and was also battling illness.
Van de Elzen offers some insight.
Recently, three top Sydney eateries shut up shop for good, and van de Elzen reckons what happens in the Aussie food scene usually materialises across the ditch.
Demand is still high, he explains, but people aren’t spending like they used to.
“They’re still expecting a level of service or food, but are not willing to pay what’s required.”
Van de Elzen’s claims are backed by numbers from the Restaurant Association (RA), which paint a picture of an industry starting to struggle.
Sure, there were sales of over $11.2 billion by the end of the 2017-2018 financial year. But that multibillion-dollar take equates to growth of 3.6 per cent over the previous year.
After two years of significant growth, with 9.7 per cent from 2016–2017, and 8.5 per cent from 2015–2016, things settled at a “more stabilised level in 2018”, according to the RA.
Van de Elzen says wages and food costs have increased for restaurateurs, while rents had gone up “a lot”.
“Where do you pull back? Do you pay your staff less? Do you make your food worse?” he asks.
“You can’t. A lot more places are opening. A lot more places are closing.”
These are difficulties echoed by Restaurant Association boss Marisa Bidois.
In her most recent Hospitality Report, she wrote owners ranked wage costs, along with a lack of skilled employees, as their number one challenge.
“This competition for skilled employees has the potential to drive wage rises in some regions, although operators also look for creative ways to retain employees to ensure their labour costs are kept under control,” she added.
“Wages continue to rise beyond customers’ expectation of price rises and that’s a challenge and balancing act that hospitality business owners face.”
For the most part, employees filling key restaurant roles have seen their wages increase.
According to RA figures, in 2012 the average hourly wage for wait staff was $14.50.
By 2017, it was $16.58, a 14 per cent increase over five years.
Head chefs were paid $20.66 per hour on average in 2012. By 2017, the average hourly rate was $23.38, a 13 per cent increase.
Restaurant managers saw wage rates decline, although salaried managers were better rewarded in recent years.
They were paid an average salary of $58,549 in 2017, up 10.5 per cent in 2016.
KEEPING THE KITCHEN OPEN
Al Brown is one of New Zealand’s most well-known culinary figures.
His cult diner-style restaurants, Depot and Federal Delicatessen, are popular mainstays of the Auckland food scene.
Today the biz is crowded, but Al’s not worried.
“[It] normally sorts itself out”, he says, adding low quality outlets are found out and tend to drop off.
He pointed to the oft-repeated figure that as many as 80 per cent of restaurants globally fail in their first three years of business.
It was an “incredible statistic”, he said, that sometimes made him wonder why people bothered.
There are more hospo businesses than ever in New Zealand right now -17,328. New openings sat at 2739 in 2017, up from 2595 and 2178 the two years prior.
But RA numbers also show an unprecedented number of outlets failing. The 2232 closures counted for in 2017 were up from 1932 in 2016 and 1641 in 2015.
So what does it take to succeed?
“If you drop the ball, there are too many other places to go,” Brown says.
“The ones that do well are ones where the owners have worked their way through the kitchen and have started as waiters.”
Restaurant Association president Mike Egan, himself a successful restauranteur, reckons consistency is key.
Your restaurant is a jewel, he says, so keep polishing it.
“The key to a restaurant is the right recipe – the food, obviously, but also the ambience, and the service,” Egan says.
“It’s got to resonate with the customers, you’ve got to be dogged and bloody-minded for consistency.
“The most valuable commodity customers have is time. We can’t waste it.”
Melissa Lind, who manges Wellington’s Charley Noble, a shining light in the capital’s food scene, has been in the business for 13 years.
In her view, the difference between successful and unsuccessful restaurants is owner involvement in both their business and the wider industry.
Plenty of people “get a bit of money” and think “I’ll open a restaurant”, she says.
“It’s such a labour of love,” she adds, pointing at Charley Noble directors Pengyu and Jess Du.
“Jess will polish cutlery, Pengyu will run the pass,” Lind says.
“[Pengyu] would do anything, he’d jump in the dish pit.”
In Christchurch, Lisa Levy, the restaurant association’s Canterbury president and co-owner of restaurant Inati, said in June that hospitality struggles were not new, that it wasn’t restricted to New Zealand, and the Christchurch food scene was “challenging”.
More Christchurch cafe and restaurant doors are opening than closing, despite outlets still waiting for venues like the convention centre and stadium to be built, and it saw a five per cent rise in the number of food and drink outlets, the second highest in the country.
Factors blamed include diners staying away from the central city, constant roadworks and a lack of parking, anchor project delays, and a move away from fine-dining to cheaper options and shared plates.
UPS AND DOWNS
Auckland chef and restaurateur Nic Watt knows what it’s like to fail.
Not that he hasn’t won in the restaurant game – he’s well-known in the scene as the man behind MASU in Auckland’s CBD.
But Watt’s latest venture, Inca, will be his first foray back into the market since his ill-fated wellness centre burnt out last year.
True Food Yoga went into liquidation last February, owing creditors more than $2 million.
Now Watt says he’s put those memories behind him. He’s ready for a new challenge, even if the experts, and the numbers, say it’s tougher times in the Auckland hospitality scene.
True Food and Yoga “had a natural life and that was that”, he says.
“But of course I’m nervous [for Inca],” he admits.
“Absolutely, most definitely, but I’ve got a fantastic team that I’m building.”
Through the highs and lows, Watt says some things have stayed the same: the Auckland restaurant scene is hard to exist in.
According to the RA the rate of closures in Auckland picked up big time in 2017, with 951 shutting down compared to 795 and 702 the previous two years.
In Wellington, 225 shutdown in 2017 compared with 207 a year prior, while in Canterbury 243 businesses faltered, compared with 198 in 2016.
But Watt thinks he’s on to something with Inca, which from late-September will serve lemon soaked fish and cumin soaked beef (lomo soltado) to up to 130 guests sitting in its pastel hued space mirrored on Peru’s Rainbow Mountains.
Watt says he started the restaurant partly because of the attention Peruvian food is getting on a global scale.
If the San Pellegrino top restaurant list for 2019 is anything to go by, Inca should do well. Listed in this year’s top 10 are two Peruvian restaurants – one at number six (Central, in Lima, Peru) and one at number 10 (Maido, also in Lima).
Al Brown said New Zealand’s best, most successful restaurants are run by owners who have worked as chefs and waiters.
If that’s the case, then Watt would seem well-equipped to make his latest venture work.
The 42-year-old got his start in the hospitality industry in 1995 when he landed a waiting job at Parnell’s now-closed Oak and Whale.
From there he worked his way up to a chef role in Australia, and eventually went on to travel the world.
Now he’s back trying to crack the testing New Zealand food scene once again.
“It’s a beautiful cuisine and I think the Auckland market is ready for something like INCA,” Watt says.
Sunday Star Times