The reaction I received after I wrote a recent newspaper article that was published by the Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald critical of ‘no bookings’ restaurants was quite unexpected — and drove home to me the bizarre views some of the public have about restaurants. I don’t often stick my head above the parapet and write for the general public, but in a fit of mild pique I decided to write a response to a particularly troubling article by a senior journalist who was accusing the owners of no bookings restaurants of being profiteers who were engaging in unconscionable behaviour.
My argument cantered on the fact that in high rent, CBD locations many restaurants are struggling to make a profit and that a no bookings policy, with its increased table occupancy was a legitimate way to restore a reasonable margin. As part of the article I quoted the ATO and RCA statistics claiming that the average restaurant only makes about 4 – 5 % profit.
147 mostly negative comments were posted
I didn’t expect the reaction that came very swiftly, in the form of hundreds of posted comments on Fairfax’s web site and a number of aggressive emails sent direct, despite the fact that my email address was not published with the article.
The general gist of the comments: ‘Mate, you dunno what you’re talking about, we all know restaurants make a fortune . . . my cousin worked in a restaurant once, so I know a bit about them’. Another common theme: ‘They’re all pulling huge amounts of black money out of their businesses, so what you’re saying is bullshit.’
Then there were the personal attacks: ‘You’re a wanker, we know you’re being paid by the restaurant industry to write this stuff, why don’t you declare that you’re a PR spokesperson?’ or . . . ‘Never heard of a Restaurant Consultant, there is no such thing, so what are you really?’
Many people believe restaurants have a social obligation
What came across loud and clear is that there is a disturbing perception among some that restaurants have a social obligation to people with money and social standing to let them have what they want when they want, in contrast to the ‘hoi polloi’ who can, and should queue and wait in the time-honoured manner of peasants. ‘How dare they make me queue?’ was a consistent annoying theme — the cry of the wounded victim who takes no responsibility for their actions or choices.
On the bright side it was obvious that there were some restaurants that people felt they absolutely had to experience (by luck or by good marketing and positioning), but resented the fact that there were other people who were prepared to queue and they didn’t want to join them. I formed the impression reading all this vitriol that it was actually the queues that stimulated people to want to come to see what was happening in the first place.
Restaurants are private businesses
There was scant recognition from the respondents that restaurants are private businesses and the owners are free to run them any way they want. Some comments even suggested that restaurateurs have an obligation to run their businesses a certain way, to suit those who don’t want to be reminded that they are a part of humanity. The common rejection of the explanations about the commercial reality of running restaurants was somewhat disturbing, it seems like half the population don’t believe restaurants do it tough, and the other half don’t care.
Some of the logic expressed was enlightening: ‘If restaurants didn’t make much money there wouldn’t be so many of them — people aren’t stupid, they wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t a good living.’ Obviously, people who say this stuff have never heard of lemmings, or their commercial cousins, the financial lemmings.
Unresearched assumptions drive many new hospitality businesses
I was left with a deeper understanding of the reasons why so many inexperienced people leap into restaurants and cafes and why the number of eateries has exploded over the last 15 years. Most of these people only ever see restaurants on a Friday or a Saturday night when they are hopefully full, and draw the conclusion that they are making a fortune. Outsiders also commonly see running a restaurant or café as an easy life, and a desirable escape from the drudgery of their normal existence.
I guess what really rattled me is the reaction people have when somebody challenges their beliefs about how the industry really works. Let’s not think about what is being said, let’s just shoot the messenger and bury our heads in the sand.
Be careful what you wish for.