Learning from food revolutions past

Every leap forward in our food culture has been accompanied by significant shifts in public policy. As technology reshapes the restaurant industry, government safeguards must be flexible enough to keep up with the change.

In 1950s depictions of the 21st Century, food was dismissed as an afterthought. As the heroes of science fiction flew around cities in personal space ships, carefully avoiding creasing their Alco foil garments, protein pills were enough to sustain them.

Borne out of post-war austerity, food as an inconvenient necessity was a prevalent view until the home cooking revolution of the 1970s that brought new flavours to dining tables. A similar revolution occurred in the late 1990s in Australia where dining out moved from being a preserve of the elite to an everyday activity enjoyed by all.

Both of these revolutions were spurred on by policy shifts. The cookery book explosion of the 1970s was led by Europe, where the forerunner to today’s European Union had delivered peace and prosperity to former warring countries. The common agricultural policy also ushered in an abundance of quality produce that democratised eating.

Similarly, Australia’s relatively slow embrace of dining out was accelerated by reforms to liquor licensing that made it easier for wine bars and bistros to compete against pubs and clubs. The small bars reforms started in Victoria and then spread nationwide, in the process reinventing Australia as a new and exciting food destination.

Taking the crystal ball to predict the future, it is hard to imagine that the next fundamental shift in our eating scene will not also be accompanied by a similar policy major shift.

Technology will be central to the future dining experience. Few people five years ago would have foreseen the trend for photographing meals that ensures chefs now devote as much attention to plating up as to the tastes and textures inside. Nor would many have predicted that one-third of all beds booked by visitors to Paris today are using Airbnb, a service initially aimed at couch surfing backpackers.

What will this mean for restaurants? Knowing your customer data will become a given. Dining preference will be stored in mobile devices’ preferences settings and shared with restaurants at the time of booking. This will allow establishment to tailor digital menus to individual customer tastes.

Technology will also affect the way food is produced. The shift in the US towards food preparation done offsite in commissary kitchens has been slow to catch on here. This too is linked to broader policy questions: in major US cities, high real estate rents make small kitchens a necessity, but authorities need to control food hygiene. So today, much of a New York City’s food preparation takes place in licensed offsite commercial kitchens and is finished off, plated up and served on site. With several restaurants sharing the same commissary kitchen, savings can be made through automation and task specialisation.

Australia’s restaurant scene of 2030 will be more stratified than it is today, with upscale restaurants typically having the least automation of food preparation and the highest staff to customer ratios. Casual dining outlets, however, will continue to democratise eating out through affordable prices driven in part by lower labour costs. Predictive ordering devices could replace wait staff and more sophisticated machines are starting to challenge skilled tasks like coffee production.

The pace of this change will depend on how flexible the labour relations framework is in 2030.  As more and more flexible working alternatives to the 9-5 appear, the working week of today’s office workers will blur. This will further entrench the seven-day economy that has developed over the past decade or so in Australia’s eating centres. Diners already expect to be able to eat out on Sundays and public holidays in a way a generation ago did not.

Today too many restaurants and cafés, especially in regional Australia, do not reap the benefits of a seven day economy, as the marginal cost of opening on these traditional days of rest is too high under today’s penalty rate regime. Staffing costs can double, while menu prices rise by 10 per cent at most. At the least, the disparity between Saturday and Sunday rates of pay needs to be addressed. A perfect solution would deliver both employee security and also employer flexibility to roster staff at peak demand times. An interim solution would be to reduce Sunday penalty rates to that of Saturday.

Without reform similar to those policy shifts in the 1970s and 1990s, the seven-day economy’s progress will be slowed and imperfectly achieved. Let’s work together to ensure Australia leads the next food revolution.

For more information visit More Shifts, a restaurant industry campaign to reform weekend pay rates.