Australian restaurants post Covid menu and service innovation bounce back

Restaurants adapt to rise in health and wellbeing menu choices

“Looking forward with confidence”, is a common theme highlighted by Life on the Pass ‘Featured Chefs’ when asked about the future of the Australian restaurant industry.

The fallout from the restrictions imposed during 2020 had a devastating effect on businesses in the food services sector, with many closing, while others adapted to a different service model, such as local deliveries.

Nevertheless, restaurant and bar owners are striving to return their businesses to some degree of normality and drive customer sales.

By September 2020, six months after lockdown was introduced, encouraging news was already on the horizon. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported an expected 9.1 per cent increased spend in eating out at restaurants, cafés, pubs or bars.

By December, food services at restaurants, cafés and takeaways had risen 5.4 per cent, with turnover 88 per cent higher than the average for March to May, according to an ABS report (Impact of Covid, Dec 2020).

A similar figure of 5.1 per cent recovery in revenue was predicted in the restaurants industry, 2020-21 by IBIS World, Global Market Analysts. Annual growth of 2.1 per cent over the next five years is expected to reach $20.6 billion by 2025-26.

The number of restaurant businesses operating in Australia is now around 21,680

Restaurants bounce back from the epidemic far better than retail

Since the industry has reopened, the news from ABS is that restaurants and cafés have bounced back from the epidemic far better than other retail sectors in Australia, including hardware stores, electronics goods, department stores, supermarket and clothing/footwear retailers.

Their performance clearly points to the resilience of the industry –  and the “desire of Australians to eat out”.  Around 1 in 5 (19 per cent) visit a restaurant, café or pub at least once a week, and spend on average $60 on a meal, rising to $96 for 35-49 year olds.

Prior to the outbreak of the epidemic, there were more than 85,000 eat out venues including, 22,000 restaurants and nearly 7,000 pubs and bars, according to a study published by Hospitality Magazine, 2017.

In Sydney alone, more than 19,000 outlets operated (NSW Food Authority) and nearly 5,000 in Melbourne (Yellow Pages).

The number of restaurant businesses operating in Australia is now around 21,680, employing some 154, 800, according to IBISWorld, World Global Market Analysts, “Restaurants in Australia industry outlook (2020-2025)”.

Australian identify eating fresh fruit and vegetables as a “top food priority”

Restaurant operators, and their chefs, who are creative, flexible and innovative in their menus and service offering appear to be definitely showing the way forward. The need for innovation has never been as important as the industry moves heads towards a rapidly transforming post-Covid world.

What does the new normal in “eating out” look like? The answer – health and wellbeing. It’s a trend that has seen consumer interest skyrocket in combining sustainability, local produce, indigenous ingredients and healthy eating.

Back in 2016, The Australian Institute of Food Safety reported that more than 40 per cent of Australians identify eating fresh fruit and vegetables as a “top food priority”. Nearly a quarter ( 24 per cent) also identify reductions in sugar and fat intake. Another strong sign is a 1.7 per cent growth in Australian spending each year on their health and wellbeing, according to “Health expenditure, Australia” report – The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), 2015-16.

More likely to choose local Australian ingredients in a menu dish

Increasingly, more people are not only opting to spend their recreation time on meals out but also on eating healthy meals out. Clearly food preferences will continue to change in 2021 and beyond as healthy eating and healthy foods occupy a bigger place on the restaurant menu.

Current reports from ADM suggest that nearly 1 in three (31 per cent) of consumers now prefer to eat foods better suited to their health. Australians increasingly want to eat natural ingredients and recipes, and know more about what their food contains and where it comes from. The native crops of Australia,  and their cultivation, are increasingly recognised as being better adapted to local temperature and environmental pressures, and thus, able to provide greater abundance, nutrition and food diversity.

Today, head chefs are committed more than ever to supporting local food producers and only sourcing quality fresh ingredients. Their dedication goes hand in hand with Australian diners becoming more conscious of supporting local businesses and boosting the economy, and as a result, more likely to choose local Australian ingredients in a menu dish if made available.

Innovation in creating health eating menus focus will continue to combine traditional cooking techniques that adapt to exciting new health food ingredients, preparation and serving concepts.

Incredibly, the image of the traditional steak eating Australian may already be giving way to the fish eating Australian.

Local restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne  – on an upward curve

Prior to Covid, Hospitality magazine reported that the popularity of Australian cuisine was 87 per cent, Seafood (rose by 8.8 per cent to 80 per cent) and Healthy Eating – up by a staggering 14.7  per cent at 78 per cent compared to a McDonald’s (dropping 19 per cent to 42 per cent), KFC ( also down 19 per cent to 35 per cent) and Domino’s Pizza (falling 12 per cent to 30 per cent).

Despite The Australian Beef Sustainability Framework reporting that over a 12 week period, beef sales increased by 20 per cent during the epidemic, recent online research suggests that Australians might actually be eating more salmon. It seems that that the omega-3 rich salmon is the third most popular searched-for food in 2020, behind “potato and salmon”, the No.1 food search term of the year.

Despite recent brief returns to restrictions, both Sydney and Melbourne neighbourhoods are observed to be on an upward curve with local restaurants, and independent outlets, such as butchers and grocers appearing to thrive.

Those venues that were first to experiment and invest in serving in their community are recovering well and going from strength to strength. It has been reported that many high-end restaurants stopped their delivery services “as soon as they were able to open the doors to welcome back customers”.

However, adapting to a post Covid customer experience in the restaurant industry has also seen venues incorporate delivery it into their business models and are reporting demand is as strong as it was before the outbreak.