Dining Out

Supersize Me: The future of dining out in Australia

Australia’s multi-venue restaurant groups are going through a growth spurt. ALEXANDRA CARLTON investigates what’s driving it — and what does it mean for the future of eating out?

The dining room at Lucas Restaurants' Grill Americano.

Lumea Photo (main)

On the surface, your favourite local pasta place or New York-style bistro probably looks and feels like, simply, a restaurant. The menu is likely to be seasonal and constantly changing, designed for exactly that place and exactly that moment in time. That landscape oil painting or curved plexiglass sculpture looks like it was hand-chosen by the owner, and blends seamlessly into the rest of the streamlined design scheme. The staff know your name and remember your favourite cocktail and it all has the cosy, bespoke feel of a neighbourhood fixture.

But in Australia, particularly in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, there’s a very good chance that restaurant isn’t just a restaurant. It’s very likely part of a larger “group”, one that could include a handful of sibling venues (such as Nomad Group, which operates namesake restaurants in both Sydney and Melbourne, plus Sydney’s Beau and the grand new Reine and La Rue in Melbourne) or many dozens (Merivale, the group behind Sydney’s Mr Wong, Totti’s and Mimi’s, which hovers somewhere around the 80-plus mark).

Merivale’s Mimi’s.

(Photo: Steven Woodburn)

And if it feels like these groups are suddenly everywhere, your sense is correct. Since the end of the pandemic, Australian restaurant groups seem to be shooting out new venues faster than they can mix a tableside tartare. The reasons are varied: some sensed that cooped-up customers would be desperate to return to restaurants once lockdowns ended and got ahead of the boom. Others watched operators whose business models were shaky before Covid go under, and capitalised on the gaps they left behind. And a few simply snapped up hot property deals.

“During the lockdowns, developments didn’t stop. Landlords still needed tenants, and there were some really good deals going so we managed to snag all these sites. That’s why we’re still growing,” says Justin Newton, whose House Made Hospitality opened Lana, Grana and several other venues within Hinchcliff House in Sydney’s CBD in 2021, followed by Promenade Bondi Beach and Martinez in 2023, with more projects to come.

Schnitzel à la Viennese with a smoke salmon roe at The Charles Brasserie.

Many others jumped in on the action: In Sydney, Bentley Group (Bentley Restaurant & Bar, Cirrus, Monopole, Yellow) added Brasserie 1930 and King Clarence to its portfolio last year. The Love Tilly Group (Love, Tilly Devine, Ragazzi) expanded to the ambitious Palazzo Salato. Etymon Projects (The Charles Grand Brasserie & Bar, Loulou Bistro) has grand plans to open at least half a dozen venues in the next year, while newcomer Kolture opened three modern Korean venues in three months with plans for more.

Further north, the Light Years Group burst into the 2020s with a new eponymous restaurant in Byron Bay, plus Pixie, Moonlight, Frankies Gelato and The Smoking Camel. In Brisbane, the group behind Same Same and Hôntô magicked up Agnes, Agnes Bakery and Biànca.

Interior at Agnes in Brisbane.

(Photo: David Chatfield)

The benefits of being part of a restaurant group are huge if you’re an owner or operator: ordering efficiencies, growth opportunities for staff, and everything else that comes with scaling any sort of operation. But what does it mean for customers? That all depends on what you want from your restaurant.

Caris Graham is what you might call a “group superfan”. An account director with finance-focused digital conference company The Inside Network, Graham’s relationship with Melbourne’s Lucas Restaurants largely began at the height of the pandemic. “We do events that bring together fund managers and clients, and during Covid we needed to find new ways for them to connect,” she says. She reached out to Lucas Restaurants who were delighted to collaborate on creating curated, six-course lunch boxes from one of their most popular restaurants, Chin Chin, to send out to the company’s clients. “They shipped them as far away as Brisbane for us,” says Graham.

Interior at the Promenade Bondi Beach.

(Photo: Jiwon Kim)

Once lockdowns lifted, Graham and her colleagues cemented their connection to Lucas Restaurants even further; they were personally invited to the soft launch of Grill Americano, one of several restaurants the group launched post pandemic. The Inside Network now does the majority of its client entertaining with the group, and records show that someone connected to its business has visited a Lucas Restaurants venue a whopping 76 times in the last 18 months. “I love that when you walk through the door they know your name. There’s always a consistency,” says Graham. “No matter which of their restaurants you go to you get a very different experience but you can always tell it’s Lucas.”

It’s this sort of personalised attention, the ability to form valuable and mutually beneficial business partnerships and a commitment to unwavering quality across multiple venues that loyalists love about their favourite restaurant groups. But if you’re someone who likes the less polished, more low-fi feel of an independent neighbourhood restaurant, the great rise of the group may not be quite so welcome.

Desserts at Grill Americano.

(Photo: Lumea Photo)

Atilla Yilmaz has more or less single-handedly run his cult favourite Middle Eastern and Mediterranean-leaning restaurant Pazar in Sydney’s west since 2014, and says that the dominance of restaurant groups means that smaller operators like him are finding it harder to stay afloat. The biggest challenge, he says, is competing to attract and retain staff, particularly in a tight labour market.

“Groups can offer their staff career progression across different venues, uniform bonuses, big tips, even trips overseas, all that stuff,” says Yilmaz. “All power to them; if I had their budget I would love to do the same with my staff.” Instead, he routinely loses team members to the big hitters, and winds up doing dozens of jobs himself. “I do everything from bookings to rosters to payroll to fixing something that breaks in the kitchen,” he says, and worries that his model simply isn’t sustainable. “I do sometimes wonder how much longer I can do it all for, or if what I’m doing is even healthy,” he says.

Interior at Bentley Group’s Brasserie 1930.

The staff factor is the double-edged sword in an uneasy stand-off between groups and independents. Without the sorts of opportunities that groups can offer, ones that position hospitality as a lucrative, attractive and long-term career, there’ll be no hospitality at all. But if it’s only one segment of the industry that can offer those perks, then restaurant groups may edge out the little guys entirely.

That’s not to say that the future of restaurants looks like a cookie-cutter dystopia. The expansion of groups that can benefit their workers while still offering customers the sense that they’re in a bespoke venue designed with care and serving food they want to eat should be a win-win for everyone. House Made’s Newton says the best bulwark against a group appearing corporate or contrived is to keep true hospitality – the art of looking after people – at the heart of the business. “Our core value is just to be good, really,” he says. “To be good humans and be good to our guests and good to our staff.”

House Made Hospitality’s Bar Mammoni.

(Photo: Steven Woodburn)

And ultimately, says Anton Forte, whose Swillhouse group recently added the multi-layered Le Foote in Sydney’s revitalised The Rocks precinct to a portfolio that includes Restaurant Hubert and Alberto’s Lounge, anything that brings more vigour and vibrance back to Australian cities benefits all of us. “The recent investment in tourism and green space and restaurants and other developments makes the city feel dynamic and exciting for everyone,” he says.

“I want to be a part of anything that helps that.”

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