Running a restaurant is simple. But simple is hard! It’s a fickle business! Restaurants come and go. Tastes change. Staff become complacent.
Did you know that there are over 16 000 cafes and restaurants in Australia? That’s about 1.1 million seats to fill three times a day!
And that the average life of a restaurant is just 18 months!! The average profit according to the ATO is 1.2%. Food costs are rising. Good staff are hard to find and harder to keep.
But people still love to open restaurants and it’s one of the few professions for which you do not have to have any experience. Many people who open restaurants and cafes have no commercial experience – just a love of food and hospitality. Food safety training is the only mandatory requirement.
The restaurant itself is a relatively recent development. Most cultures have a long tradition of hospitality, offering food and lodging to strangers, initially through monasteries and later through inns and taverns. However not a lot of people travelled and most ate at home. Inns and taverns primarily served alcohol with a few snacks whilst cafés, which appeared in the late sixteenth century, did not provide meals.
There were certainly eating establishments in ancient Greece and Rome, serving wine and pastries – but they were not deemed appropriate for respectable citizens and were often the haunt of prostitutes.
The café – serving only coffee – started in the mid seventeenth century and were places where men of letters met and conducted business – Lloyds of London, the insurance company is actually named after the café, Lloyds, in which the brokers met.
The restaurant, as a place where the focus is on the provision of meals, was born in France in the late eighteenth century. The Grande Taverne de Londres was opened in 1782 by Antoine Beauvilliers.
The word “restaurant” originally meant a restorative beverage, something like beef tea or chicken broth, which were sold through places known as “bouillons”.
In Paris in the 1760’s and 1770’s, “restaurants” addressed a semi-medical need and were places for the sensitive new age intellectuals to rest and recuperate – a sort of health food retreat. In the 1780’s they began to serve more substantial meals and by the late 1790’s the word “restaurant” became the fashionable word for any Parisian eatery.
The development of the restaurant was assisted by the French Revolution in 1789 when many chefs found themselves without employment, so set up their own restaurants.
The birth of the restaurant is a significant part of social history. For the first time people were able to eat whatever and whenever they wanted, knowing in advance how much the meal would cost. Prior to this dining was the privilege of the wealthy who employed their own cooks and what people ate was based on their status in society. The new restaurants contributed towards social equality bringing the opportunity to eat well within everyone’s reach and permitting everyone to choose what they ate.
The emancipation of the chef, moving from the private house of a nobleman to the public domain helped change the social status of the chef and the structure of the culinary profession.
It was not long ago that chefs were hidden away in kitchens that were hot, smelly and full of poisonous fumes, often in the bowels of the building or in a separate outhouse – as fires were always a risk. They worked long hours under very poor conditions and were seldom seen. How times have changed!
Today, food is fashionable and visual. Kitchens are no longer hidden away but have become “restaurant theatre” often being part of the dining experience.
The style and design of the restaurant are the “props” of the stage. The staff are the cast who put on a performance every night. Chefs and service staff wear different uniforms like costumes, and have rehearsed for the special parts they play.
The menu is the programme – full of subtle interpretation and pleasant surprises.
The “celebrity chef”, a relatively new phenomenon, has become the lead actor. Indeed many chefs have gained cult status! Food has become sensual, passionate, fashionable and vital, and a valued entertainment product. The theatre of the restaurant has been taken to television and the cinema, providing entertainment based around the production of food.
The celebrity status of chefs, throughout the world, has lifted the overall status of the profession. However the food remains most important part of the “entertainment” of dining out and the enjoyment of the meal is the “final act” that makes or breaks the theatrical experience.
Most importantly, the rise and spread of restaurants accelerated the evolution of cuisines and, particularly in Australia, has exposed us all to new flavours, tastes and travel experiences!