Still room for improvement

Picture: Iain Gillespie

It's been a tough year for the West Australian hospitality industry and it's left some businesses hurting. The downturn in the resources sector, specifically the fall in iron ore prices, flowing on to job cuts and a reduction in the numbers migrating to the State have all combined to produce a subdued economy which has inevitably had its effects on the business enjoyed by restaurants and bars.

Catering Institute president Craig Joel says that while many top-end restaurants have done well, there's not as much foot traffic in the CBD as in, say, Melbourne and so the lunch trade in the city has suffered.

"The restaurants seems to be doing pretty well in the evening but for lunchtimes it's a difficult period to generate spend," Mr Joel said.

"I think consumers across the country are tending to spend less, even though they might be dining out more."

This may appear to be a contradiction but Mr Joel says it's easily explained. The younger generation, for example, always seem to be out but they're taking cheaper options such as share plates - a concept which is continuing to forge ahead. Moreover, there's a new trend Mr Joel predicts is about to hit Perth - one he terms "social eating".

As he explains it, social eating has similarities to the American bar scene where celebrity bartenders develop a following. They attract customers keen to shoot the breeze over the bar, as well as talking about the drinks they're drinking.

That trend has been adopted on the eating side where open kitchens operate directly behind the bar and where chefs can chat with customers and explain the food they're making, Mr Joel says.

It's not terribly expensive and there's lots of plate sharing among friends. There are already examples of social eating in Sydney, Brisbane and the Gold Coast, he adds.

"The first person to open up something like that in Perth will do incredibly well," Mr Joel said.

Robin Clarke, chair of judging for the Gold Plate Awards, agrees tapas and share plates are "absolutely massive".

She adds that these days there is much more emphasis on fresh produce, especially WA produce. And the trend towards healthy desserts gets a big tick from Mrs Clarke.

"There's been a bit of a move away from the stodgy stuff towards fresh and cooked fruit - all of the judges commented on that," she said.

Another plus is greater availability of vegetarian meals.

"There's still a lot who could lift their game but there's a lot more vegetable options," she said.

"And it's more innovative - not just pasta and cheese and tomato sauce."

Mrs Clarke says some restaurants need to do more work on their menus, adding more information about gluten-free and low-fat options. Websites also should have detailed information including menus and wine lists.

On service, Mrs Clarke says a warm welcome from front-of-house staff "sets a positive tone for the night. A big smile is still the international passport".

She has encountered good, forward-thinking floor staff who anticipate the customers' needs; but there is still room for improvement, not least when serving drinks.

"Some staff don't see beverage service as part of their jobs," Mrs Clarke said.

Nor do they all remember the customer comes first.

Mrs Clarke relates the anecdote of the party who didn't get the indoor table they had booked but had to settle instead for outdoor seating. Then, one of the wait staff complained it was too warm with the heater on and announced: "I can't work in this - I'm turning it off." The party waited for her to go back inside before switching the heater back on.