BEST OF 2023: What's eating Canberra's hospitality industry?

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Pialligo Estate entrance

Pialligo Estate closed abruptly in March. Photo: Stephen Ning.

Year in Review: Region is revisiting some of the best Opinion articles of 2023. Here’s what got you talking, got you angry and got you thinking this year. Today, Lucy Ridge takes a look at the state of the hospitality industry.

First, Pialligo Estate closed its doors, now Zoo Bar. Who’s next? What’s going on with Canberra’s hospitality venues?

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that the last few years have been tough for the hospitality industry. We all remember the stories of ‘pivoting’ – takeaway menus, make-at-home products and pleas for support. With lockdowns and restrictions a (mostly) distant memory, it would be easy to think that the business effects of the pandemic are behind us.

But with Zoo Bar owner Rulla Bakri recently telling Region that the business “just didn’t recover” after the pandemic, it looks like the hospitality industry might be suffering the effects of Long (economic) COVID.

Let’s take a look at the symptoms.

Zoo Bar closed its doors on Wednesday, 29 March. Photo: Zoo Bar Facebook.

As a food writer, I have the privilege of speaking with a lot of people in Canberra’s food industry and staffing is an issue that comes up more often than any other. Finding enough skilled staff for a restaurant or cafe has been a challenge in Canberra since long before lockdowns became part of the lexicon. But the lingering effects of the pandemic have worsened the problem.

In order to serve the young professionals with disposable income who want to drink and dine out regularly, the hospitality industry has historically relied on students and international workers to fill the gaps in the local workforce. Those employees were unavailable during lockdowns and travel restrictions and have been slow to return.

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In addition to this, many local members of the workforce who were forced to find alternative employment during the pandemic have stayed in their new jobs. Hospitality can be a tough gig with long, irregular hours, often at night or on weekends. Workers discovered it was actually very nice having weekends off and evenings with their family. People restructured their lives and many haven’t returned to jobs in hospitality.

Together, this had led to a staff shortage affecting everyone from takeaway tuck shops to fine dining destinations.

The pandemic has also changed the behaviour of where Canberrans go out to eat. People have become more invested in their local neighbourhoods because they were spending more time in them while working from home. Instead of taking the lift down to a coffee shop in the lobby of their office block, folks wandered down to their local shops. There’s consequently been a notable rise in the number and quality of suburban cafes and restaurants.

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From Little Luxton in Gordon to Sweet Bones‘ second location in Scullin, people want good quality food close to where they live and businesses in suburban areas seem to be thriving.

Downer darlings Gang Gang has expanded its cafe offerings to nighttime service, while Curtin institution The Statesman has unveiled a brand new look and Farrer cafe Fox and Bow has opened another shop in Red Hill.

With more people looking to dine closer to home, it seems likely that inner city offerings may have suffered as a result.

People sitting under trees on crates in front of red truck

Friends and Momos food truck. Photo: Lucy Ridge.

Some emerging business owners looking to break into the hospitality industry have sought to mitigate these risks by starting small and staying mobile. New food truck businesses like Jarochos, Little Phat Rolls, Friends and Momos and Future Swirl are popping up all over Canberra.

When interviewing these business owners, they often mentioned that a food truck was an appealing way to break into the industry as it requires minimal staff, has a relatively low financial outlay, and they could potentially still operate ‘as normal’ if dining restrictions or lockdowns were ever to return.

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Despite the recent high-profile closures, the industry is not all doom and gloom. There are still plenty of local businesses that are flourishing. But it’s a pertinent reminder that the best way to ensure your favourite local restaurant doesn’t suffer from the lingering effects of the pandemic is to sit down and have a meal.

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I am a little old fashioned and don’t ask a lot in life but love a good sandwich that combines a bit of skill and variety. I am so sick of going into so-called top cafes or tourist spots in Canberra to find that all they have on offer is overpriced ham and cheese sandwiches. Don’t get me started on those huge and unappetising schnitzel rolls in Turkish bread always on display. I also hate to keep asking staff to cut my sandwiches or rolls in half.
I don’t mind paying for a good sandwich. Can anyone out there in Riot-land recommend a good café in Canberra that offers a hearty sandwich or roll with variety? I will be forever grateful!

There is not good Indian restaurants out there for vegetarians.

Ross of Canberra8:19 pm 13 Apr 23

Dine in the clubs. Dine at non-nouveau takeaways without any fig & wattle seed jus. Else, dine at the best restaurants. The middle ground is gone.

It’s just too expensive to dine out in Canberra, especially if you’re a low income worker like myself. In 2007 I noticed the average price for a plate of food was $35-$40, I don’t want to think how much it would be now. Even something simple like a sandwich from a Café is too expensive. I admit I would love to dine out more often but the amount I have in my wallet discourages me.

Haha $35 for a plate of food in 2007, you are joking! That isn’t the cost of a main even now, what are you eating mate?

Capital Retro5:49 pm 10 Apr 23

The price of potato scallops (potato cakes if you like) at my local fast-food cafe has risen from $1.10 to $1.50 (gravy extra) in the past 6 months. I saw the price of a small steak on a wanky city eatery menu at “44” (didn’t even have a dollar sign in front).

This is unsustainable.

Ross of Canberra6:52 pm 13 Apr 23

This is one of the realities of the two-tiered economy. The Archimedean-screw economy lifts the outputs of work upwards, leaving only the contemporary serf to deal with rising costs. With a near-predominant proportion of voters now enrolled in the Ponzi society, not even an election will correct the rude imbalance. Yes, it’s unsustainable. Soon, enough will be ready for a change.

Gregg Heldon8:12 am 10 Apr 23

In your article, you mentioned trying to get the young, professionals in. There’s part of your problem. Have of the venues that I’ve been in, in the last several years in Canberra, feel like they don’t want me there.
So much so that when we go for a meal now, it tends to be at the clubs that we’re members of. There’s no pretence there. A nice atmosphere and decent priced meals with a couple of options, restaurant wise, depending on mood. I’m 56 and medically retired so price is a factor on a fixed income.
I do like a food truck but they can be expensive so I’m selective. And I love a good, old fashioned take away when done right. Their food is always consistent. As is the customer service. That’s important.

The hospitality industry has been doing it tough, but it’s always been a tough industry where few staff had reliable secure employment. Those employers suffering the most are those who did not look after their staff.

When there were plenty of available workers, some venues treated staff badly because they could. Those staff have now found better jobs, so they will not return to their former employers even if they do stay in the industry. They are also likely to warn off their friends and family from particular venues, managers and employers. Word gets around.

Employers who value their staff and treat them well, have fewer retention and recruitment issues.

Seems zoo bar closed just as their new venture st marlo opened… no point floggjng a dead horse when you have a shinny new pony

Capital Retro11:45 am 09 Apr 23

I rarely dine out since I retired due to cost but last night a nice destination to celebrate a special occasion was chosen in Barton.

Getting there was like driving through a ghost town with no-one to be seen and most other venues closed. The restaurant was almost empty and the menu offered was limited due to the public holiday. This was disappointing as there was nothing on the website to explain this prior to arrival so the dishes we had chosen were simply not available. Nevertheless, the food and service was excellent but shortly before 9.00pm the table was cleared and we were asked to leave. I think this is because this is when public holiday triple time rate kicks in.

That answers most of the question headlining this article.

Probably the same reason why Australia doesn’t manufacture stuff anymore. Even importing cheap labour isn’t going to save us.

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