September 8, 2014

The changing face of fast food

Another season, another trend, another food retail outlet pops up to take the city by storm.

These retail outlets appear seemingly out of nowhere and are flavour of the month (excuse the pun). It’s the place to go, the place to be seen, and everyone is talking about it. You can’t get in, you need to line up, and a bossy maître d type sends you to the bar to wait your turn for a table. By 10pm you’re ushered to a small dark corner and devour half the menu because after numerous drinks whilst waiting, you’re now starving! You eat, enjoy the food, some of the atmosphere and leave with full satisfaction that you are now up-to-date and on trend.
It’s all part of the experience: the hype, the excitement, the waiting. The feeling of honour when you are finally seated, and let’s face it, sometimes it adds to the whole romance when they treat you a little mean.
This is a familiar situation for us all and, having spent the last two months in Melbourne, one I got extremely used to! However, the one trend which struck me the most was not a food or flavour trend (although Asian street food is everywhere!); it was seeing the type of establishment outlined above moved from its traditional lane way or flagship residence to a vastly more commercial and accessible environment.
Fast Food has had a face lift … welcome to a different kind of cool.
Before going any further, let’s clear one thing up right away. By “fast food” I don’t mean McDonald’s or any other take away or fast food venture which has, until recently, owned the term. The industry is redefining this term to mean exactly what it should: food which you can obtain quickly.
The change in this space is coming from many directions and meeting harmoniously in the middle, which now paves the way for exciting, delicious and varied cuisine options, which you needn’t wait around for.
From the top end of the spectrum we have seen George Calombaris transition his fine dining, 2 Chef Hatted restaurant, The Press Club, into the cool, funky and affordable Gazi. This big, gutsy and well talked about move seems to be paying off for Calombaris, with Gazi jam packed with delighted customers. As a quirky side note, they also offer takeaway!
Furthering this theme within his own group, Calombaris launched Jimmy Grants,”Greek Street Food”, in a quick service restaurant (QSR) model. Walk into any of these outlets, and within 15 minutes you’ve got yourself a mean souva!
Asian street food is, and has been, on trend for some time now. Establishments offering innovative and creative takes on this trend are in the main food court of a large, high street shopping centre. Wait, where? Not something you would expect to hear. You would assume my previous sentence would end with something along the lines of “tucked away behind an alley after you’ve circumnavigated a dumpster, a graffiti lane and ventured down a dark stairwell”.
Not so. Walking around the new Melbourne Emporium Café Court, the new fast food trend explodes. Establishments that look like they belong in a laneway have streamlined and simplistic designs with creative and innovative food offerings … all of them on trend, all of them offering a restaurant quality meal in a fast food acceptable speed of service time frame.
Bing Boy offers “Urban Asian Street Food” based on the Chinese crepes, Jian Bing; Chinta Ria Soul offers amazing laksa, Pho Nom offers traditional and fragrant Pho soups, and the list goes on.
So what is driving the fast food industry into this change, and what does that mean for consumers and the future industry?
With an increasingly educated and health conscious consumer base, fast food has been forced to make some hard decisions: keep up, or lose your market share. No longer is it acceptable to serve or consume poor quality meals with little or no nutritional value. Consumers want convenience and food that is quickly obtainable more than ever, but there is an extension to this consumer demand now. It needs to be delicious and it needs to be nutritionally sound, because not every night is “treat night” and, as a fast food establishment, you can’t afford for the majority of your customers to only visit once a week.  Another Emporium establishment, Thr1ve, displays this perfectly with a keen nutrition, quality and speed of service focus. Our consumers are telling us what they want, and it’s up to us to give it to them. For the industry, this change in direction creates a precedent and a foundation on which future business can grow and develop. As the market and consumers climb on board with the new fast food industry and word spreads that yes, it’s possible to have amazing fast food, the options become endless. It’s a win-win situation for industry consumers. The raising of the fast food bar allows for new concepts to enter the industry and find a home in a more developed market. The transitioning of a trend into a quick service restaurant model, which has the capacity to mature into a chain or franchise, is now more achievable than ever.
Mel Sharpe is the Operations Manager of the Australasian Sandwich Association and is also Director of Passageway. Passageway specialises in creating bespoke food industry insight tours throughout Australia and the world.


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