October 27, 2014

No more blurred lines

It has always been a debate among café owners as to at what point a restaurant becomes a café. We liked to use the scenario that once the white tablecloth comes out, the business becomes a restaurant.

We now know that this is no longer the case, as the two have merged into what I would now call the super café.

This new look business offers exceptional coffee service and in turn, has to offer unique food offerings and great customer relations. If I go into one of these new emerging café businesses and ask for a single estate espresso, I want it backed up with a great meal like pork and duck rillettes or a goat ragu with a cob of warm sourdough. No more bacon and egg rolls for breakfast, when I can now get an eggs benedict filled baguette with maple bacon and lime hollandaise.

For café owners, it has come down to customer expectations and the fight to stay in that top one percent of the hit list of Australia’s best cafés. With an industry of over thirty thousand cafés nationally, the competition is tough. What we are seeing of late is restaurant chefs moving into café service. Firstly, they can make more money, with 20% profit margins versus 8% in a restaurant. And secondly, they work better hours (all day work), and city CBD cafés have weekends off. The third reason is that they can be more experimental and inventive, as the rules are much more relaxed in café world. We are now seeing chefs combining many nations on the plate, as well as better quality cuts of meat, fish and poultry.

The Australian coffee consumption is now at 13 billion dollars a year, with over 3 billion cups of coffee sold in the café and other foodservice sectors. Our research shows most people are wanting more from their local café, and food is becoming the next hero after good coffee service.

Café owners like Nolan Hirte of Proud Mary Café in Melbourne’s Collingwood know the importance of keeping up the image of using quality food as the completion factor in the full café service. Nolan and his team enjoy the fact that every available seat is full from opening to closing, because of the quality of covering all facets of the café business, from award winning coffee to accolades as one of Australia’s best café food locations. Nolan employs passionate chefs who fully understand flavours and food trends, just as he would employ a professional barista or coffee roaster. Cafés have traditionally only employed cooks, or the owners have dabbled themselves.

The Australian café scene has changed exponentially over the last 10 years and is leading the world in many areas, like coffee and other beverage service. Australian chefs also have been known to be innovators in food techniques and have graced the world with their amazing takes on food service. Combine the two greats together – great chefs and amazing beverage service, and you will have a pretty remarkable outcome for the lucky café punter.

The other big factor as to why the café has become popular, as our latest Café Pulse survey shows, is that café service is used monthly by 81% of the population and is the most popular part of the hospitality sector. Another survey result also shows us that food is 50% of all café purchases, which has grown considerably over the last five years. Beverage and coffee was always the hero, but pressure to provide more in a café is now more evident.

We have seen the dramatic closures of some of the better restaurants in Australia, like Level Forty One, Becasse, Blancharu and recently, Celebrity Chef Manu Feildels closing his creation, Le Grand Cirque. These establishments were sadly part of the slide of fine dining towards casual dining. People have chosen to be very careful with that hard-earned dollar and are pushing their discretionary spending more towards fun style experiences like the upmarket pub bistros and the café. Many of these well known chefs who had the unpleasant experience of restaurant failure are taking up the café concept and are making a great go of it. Most business mentors will tell you that you need to fail at least once before you get it right, and it’s time now for the super café to start emerging.

We see a big future in café growth in the next 10 years, and the stronger areas are the food, tea and iced drink sectors. The industry is growing at a rapid rate, and the emphasis is still big around quality and speed of service. Coffee will remain the main drawcard for daily visits but as lifestyles get busier, so will the demand for other café services.

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