Australian restaurant-goers will be ordering expensive meals from apps and sipping drinks from plastic cups in stilted atmosphere for many years to come, food critic Matt Preston has predicted.
The former MasterChef judge, 59, warned diners to expect shorter menus and mandatory booking deposits as struggling businesses fight to minimise costs and accelerate cashflow, he told Delicious magazine.
Preston also said share plates were unlikely amid mounting concerns about hygiene and the birth of socially distanced ‘digital’ dining, where customers place orders online instead of perusing paper menus.
The stark changes come at a time of unprecedented crisis for the Australian restaurant industry, which has seen revenue decline by 25.1 percent from $19.7billion to $15bilion from 2019 to 2020, figures from market researcher IBISWorld show.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data revealed more than 293,000 catering and service jobs were wiped from the labour market between February and May as COVID restrictions began.
Separation walls and hand sanitisers installed to comply with the government’s COVID guidelines will make eating out more expensive, Mr Preston warned, as restaurants are forced to absorb higher fixed costs into their prices.
‘Inevitably, this has to find its way on to our bills, especially with fewer customers coming through the doors,’ he said.
Those mounting expenses coupled with seating restrictions are the cause of newly instituted ‘minimum charges’, he said, as businesses struggle to balance their books with fixed-price set menus and spends per person.
Mr Preston told customers to expect restaurants to ask for deposits, refundable or otherwise, to protect themselves from no-shows.
Masked waiters serving socially distanced tables separated by rows of empty chairs might sound like a dystopian sci-fi thriller, but it’s simply the new normal of pandemic dining.
Pared back menus are also par for the course, as restaurants replace lengthy ‘a la cartes’ with set options to control costs and cut down on waste.
Diners should be mindful that certain dishes may be off the menu due to a lack of available ingredients and special dietary options axed with food imports drastically reduced.
With millions still working from home and overseas tourists shut out by the federal government’s continuing travel ban, the quiet streets of Australian cities are almost unrecognisable from the bustling thoroughfares that existed six months ago.
Cafes and restaurants have borne the brunt of this metropolitan mass exodus, with scant workers and scarcely any foreign visitors looking for food.
The lack of tourists and dramatic downturn in evening entertainment has had a devastating impact on fine dining venues in particular, Mr Preston noted.
In virus-stricken Melbourne, already devastated venues were forced to close their doors for a second time on July 9 as the city and adjacent Mitchell Shire entered a renewed six-week lockdown to quash soaring infection rates.
Many are not expected to reopen.
A pandemic side effect few saw coming is the return of single-use plastic, as reusable containers and keep-cups fall out of favour amid fears they harbour huge volumes of bacteria.
With public health taking precedence over environmental consciousness, businesses have re-embraced disposables in the hope that they will protect them from in-house outbreaks.
Mr Preston said he hopes this ‘last-minute reprieve’ will lead to an increased use of more sustainable throwaways like cardboard.
The death of share plates and the birth of digital, ‘touch-free’ dining are among the most obvious changes to front-of-house service since lockdown was gradually lifted in May.
Mr Preston said restaurants are doing their utmost to minimise contact between staff and customers, with online ordering, physical distancing of 1.5 metres and the absence of condiments on tables.
‘Are the days of a table of friends spinning the lazy Susan or passing around the copper karahi of Madras chicken curry over for now, given the increased fear of double-dipping?’ he wondered.
Mr Preston predicts delivery is here to say as businesses scramble to diversify their income in case a second wave sweeps the country as it has in Melbourne.
Restaurants and pubs were forced to adapt quickly under the first lockdown, with many selling takeaway beer and ready-to-cook dinner sets as an alternative source of income while the shutters were closed.
This pivot proved so successful that most are still offering meal kits and booze alongside table service, and some have even expanded to stock basic kitchen essentials.
Bread and milk have been available at McDonald’s Australia-wide since April 1, as part of a company decision to support communities while supermarket restrictions remained in place.