After the launch of the 2023 WA Good Food Guide, summer and the next year are set to be marked by experiences out and about at the state’s finest places to eat and drink. But as we look forward to another great year of drinking and dining, we take a look back at one of the toughest years to be in hospitality, when resilience and strength were the biggest themes.
To do so, WA Good Food Guide chatted to a number of chefs and owners to get their thoughts on the challenges they faced this year. Among them were gastropub owner Foni Pollitt of Mayfair Lane Pub and Dining, Liam Atkinson of contemporary bistro Le Rebelle, Calvin Chong, chef-owner of KCH, and Kazuo Yoshida, chef-owner of Tosaka. From the South West, Brenton Pyke, chef-owner of Market Eating House, and Michelle Forbes, chef-owner of Lady Lola, contributed their experiences. Each business has faced its own challenges and navigated its own way through, but at the core, and for next year, the drive to continue serving remains as strong as ever. Here’s a look back at what it took to make it through 2022, before a glance forward at 2023.
Staffing shortages were the biggest strain on the industry this year, physically and mentally, with hospitality being one of the sectors most affected by COVID. Border closures led to a shrinking workforce, as well as a rethinking of working in an industry that can’t work from home. “I think the biggest issue, and this wasn’t just in WA, is the fact that people that were working in restaurants, bars and the industry pre-COVID were not to be found post-COVID,” says Pollitt. “I’ve been very lucky at Mayfair Lane, where my core team stayed with me, but it’s those casuals that actually make for a better service, make it more concise, more fluid and make everyone happier. They’re the people that we lost. They went back to their home countries like Italy, France or elsewhere in Europe. Or they might have gone back to university, to do a degree and get a different job.”
Filling positions has proved to be challenging at KCH. When he first opened his modern Malaysian restaurant in 2019, a job ad might have gotten 20 emails a week in response. This year, though, was different. “I put out a vacancy looking for staff and got two applications in two months,” says Chong.
In Dunsborough, Michelle Forbes was forced to run Lady Lola on a tight team of just three during the winter months, with just herself in the kitchen, her partner Marinela Antonic working front of house, one casual and no kitchenhand. “We shut down our outdoor area and just turned over inside,” she says. “I had to do the food, then the dishes at the end of the night. Most nights we’d get home at 12.30am, go to bed at 1.30am, then start again at seven.”
Forbes wasn’t the only one taking on extra duties. Yoshisa also added cleaning to his role at Tosaka. “Cleaning, sweeping, wiping the floors and tables. We used to ask the kitchenhand to do this, do that. Now, because we are short of staff, we have to do everything,” he says “Sometimes we’ve had to stay back after dinner finishes at 10 until one or two in the morning.”
Staff shortages have also put more stress on the people that remain, says Atkinson. “Good staff tend to get leaned on the most, unfortunately, which is the last thing we want to do. But when you start to get let down by circumstances we can’t control, they tend to be the ones that unfortunately pick up the brunt of it.” Adding to staffing pressures has been the fact that applicants have other options to look for work in fields that perhaps aren’t as gruelling as hospitality can be. “This year, I’ve never seen so many people come through a trial and then decide they found an easier gig or they found something else online.”
Restaurants have always operated on low profit margins, but with the cost of everything going up, margins got even tighter. While the obvious solution might have been to ask diners to pay more for their food, the reality is that it was a lose-lose for restaurants, who’ve had to make the call to take the financial hit rather than up their prices and risk losing business.
All interviewees reported a 30-40 per cent increase in the price of ingredients across the board, compared with last year. In the South West, there were added costs to even get the produce through the front door, as Pyke, at Market Eating House in Bunbury, has seen first hand. “For us down here, every single delivery has a fuel levy added to it. We’re talking $500 to $1000 a week in fuel levy from suppliers.”
“We haven’t raised the prices to the point which they’ve been raised on us,” says Pyke, “If we raised our prices at the same rate, then I guess we’d find an issue with pushback from the customer.” For Chong, who serves Malaysian hawker-style food, the increases added on average a dollar to most dishes. “My dishes are $15,” he says. “I can’t just increase them to $18.”
On the subject of menu pricing, Pyke says “I’ve always firmly believed, for as many years as I’ve been in the industry, that restaurants tend to subsidise the diner’s experience. Your bottom line in food or your net profit percentage is pretty ridiculous compared to a lot of other industries.” In spite of this, Pyke and many others tend to find ways to absorb the costs rather than passing it on, often to their detriment, to offer a better experience and one they can be proud of. “People in hospitality – normally small hospitality operators – are very passionate, very driven about what they do and they’re happy to take it, and absorb those things along the way to provide an experience that they’re proud of.”
A veteran of 28 years in the hospitality industry who has been through financial ups and downs, Pollitt says, “As business owners, you have to work smarter, knowing what to absorb and what the extra costs should be passed on to the customer. And that’s a really, really fine line.” Pollitt is realistic when it comes to pricing. “There’s a certain equilibrium point where customers are gonna go so far to spend the money on the quality and the perception of value that they get on their plates,” she says. “There’s no point in putting up the price where the customers are going to look at it and go, ‘that’s ridiculous’.”
For Atkinson, who runs his businesses with his wife Sarah, they’ve had to take a long-term view. “I think this year was not about making money, this year was about just keeping the people you’ve got coming to the restaurant,” he says. “As business owners, we have a responsibility to our guests, we pride ourselves on offering a product that is reasonable. We want our guests to be excited and happy with what they get. And the last thing we want to do is have to pass on those rising costs. So rather than doing that, we’ve worked a little harder behind the scenes to try and balance it out as best as we can – that doesn’t mean we haven’t put a few prices up here and there, but it means we definitely haven’t added the prices that I suppose we should be in the sense of how high the price hikes have been with everything.”
Restaurateurs have been constantly assessing how they manage staffing and their margins. For some, this resulted in cutting down trading hours, while for others, it involved the need to pivot and find other sources of income. Weekly changing menus have also become more common to manage price increases.
Tosaka used to be open for ramen six days a week for lunch and dinner, but had to cut down their trading hours. “We moved to five days for dinner and lunch only on the weekend, because we couldn’t find any staff to cover shifts,” says Yoshida.
Pyke moved Market Eating House to a four-day week due to lack of qualified chefs, but maintains that it came with the benefit of offering better work-life balance and reducing burnout. “We found that we had much better staff retention. Everybody came in and pushed really hard for those four days, knowing that they had Sunday, Monday and Tuesday off,” he says.
Pyke has also been looking into other revenue sources to support his business. “You can always put more people through the doors, but to put more people through the doors, you need to employ more staff and so on,” he says. “So we have been doing cooking classes once every two months on a Sunday with myself and my wife – we just kept them quite tight and exclusive for a maximum of 10 people,” says Pyke.
Starting takeaway and running events, meanwhile, helped keep Lady Lola afloat. “We started doing takeaway – lasagne, conti rolls and take-home meals on Fridays,” says Forbes. “We also do a lot of events. We’ve done Fondue by the Fire at Howard Park, where we did about 400 covers over the weekend and then came back into service, Saturday night at the bar. We did a collab with Pep’s Wine Bar up in Perth. So it was just looking at every avenue and every stream that we could to get money in the bank and stay afloat until summer.”
At Mayfair Lane, Pollitt managed costs through a weekly changing menu, “We costed our food every single week and looked at what was out there seasonally. We tried to see whether or not we could find other ingredients that we could substitute, that would taste just as good but for that week might be two dollars cheaper than something else,” says Pollitt. “The minute that our meat cost went up, we looked for a different cut; our duck went up by $42 a kilo in one week, so duck came off the menu.”
From every conversation, no matter the operator or the business, the strongest thread is a love of hospitality. But this has been a year with challenges and pressures greater than many have ever had to weather. We asked each of them why they’ve kept at it through 2022. Here’s what they said.
For the passion
“I think it’s just something that gets in your blood and when you’ve got a full bar and it’s heaving and everyone’s loving it, it’s just so addictive,” says Forbes. “You just don’t ever want to stop, you want to actually push harder and do better when you have that vibe going and I think for Nel and I, it’s a passion for us.”
For great experiences
“When I personally go out and have a dining experience, and it’s just like magic, where everything just clicks, it reminds me that I want to be a part of something that creates that for other people,” says Pyke. “That feeling of joy when you’ve had a great meal, wine and service. That’s the main goal, trying to create great experiences for people.”
For their customers
“Our lovely customers and regulars make it easy to keep things running and show up every day,” says Sarah Atkinson of Le Rebelle. And Yoshida agrees: “I’ve got so many regulars and I’m happy when I’m making customers happy – that’s why we keep trying harder.”
Chong, meanwhile, gets a lot of people coming in from his hometown, Kuching, and he often receives calls from his dad back home, telling him about people that have told him they have dined at KCH, which is another reason to keep at it. “That makes me happy, and that my dad’s proud of it as well.”
For the next generation
“What puts a smile on my face is seeing my staff use something I’ve taught them, and with their energy and enthusiasm pass that to the customer, who then have a great experience, and may be here for hours,” says Pollitt. “They come to me and go ‘See that girl, she’s amazing. Don’t lose her. She is fantastic for you and what you try to do at Mayfair Lane.’ That’s what fuels me.”
“What keeps me in it is the staff you get to work with,” says Atkinson. “I met Brad Burton years ago at the Subi hotel and he treated his kitchen like a sports team. It was the most eye opening and inspirational thing I’ve seen. Where it’s like, we are a team, we’re a group. Doesn’t matter that we’re not playing on the field. We’re playing in the kitchen together. So for me, that’s what keeps me going. And now it’s inspiring all the younger people within our business to try and keep them going.”
How to Dine in 2023
For all the drive and hard work these chefs and owner-operators have to continue in these times, WAGFG hopes diners will continue to support them and keep them going for next year – make a booking, order another round of drinks, say thanks, tip generously, be kind, and most of all, enjoy yourself and the fine work these professionals do every day to enrich our lives and make them more delicious.