After five years at the helm of a hatted Rushcutters Bay restaurant, Mitch Orr has one piece of advice for anyone opening a new restaurant in Sydney.
“Don’t do it.”
The chef and co-owner of ACME restaurant locked the doors of his Italo-noodle eatery for the last time on Saturday.
“Really, don’t do it,” says the 35-year-old. “If you have $400,000 to $600,000 burning a hole in your pocket, give it to me. It’s a lot quicker way of saying goodbye to it.”
Orr and business partner Cam Fairbairn say they decided to shutter ACME because it was “the right time” to move on to different things. “We’ve experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows since opening,” says Fairbairn.
ACME is only one of several hatted Sydney restaurants permanently closing in 2019.
Kylie Kwong will serve her last saltbush cake at Billy Kwong this evening after announcing plans to open a smaller venue and focus on her work-life balance. On August 3, Kwong’s Potts Point neighbour, Paper Bird, will call it a day on Korean-Japanese largely due to inconsistent trade and Newtown’s two-hatted Oscillate Wildly is set to pull up stumps four weeks later.
It’s a significantly larger number of high-profile closures over a three month period than usual for Sydney’s taxing restaurant industry.
“I don’t think it’s ever been an easy time to run a restaurant in Sydney as an independent operator,” says Orr.
“We can only speak to our own experiences, but changes in the climate surrounding the industry have never been worse, from the effects of lockout laws, to a stagnant economy and lack of support from all levels of government. Add to that staffing issues, Uber Eats, and the culture of ‘new is better’.”
Mark Best closed his trail-blazing Surry Hills restaurant, Marque, in 2016 after 17 years as owner-operator. The veteran chef now operates three onboard restaurants with Dream Cruises and says he would not open another Sydney venue with his own money.
“The financial headwinds are against success,” he says. “People talk a lot about the rising cost of rent, but labour costs are an even bigger issue. There’s also disruptors such as Uber Eats and an oversupply of restaurants changing people’s expectations of what they should be paying [to dine out]. Restaurateurs are between a rock and a f—ing hard place.”
Best rejects the notion that lockout laws and lack of government support are the cause of so many hatted restaurant closures.
“There’s a magnitude of different reasons that might contribute to a venue’s closure,” he says.
“It’s rarely just one or two issues. You also still have chefs who treat the customer as the enemy. Chefs who cook for their own personal ego. A successful restaurant can adapt to deliver a delicious and transformative restaurant experience without dumbing down its vision.
“I acknowledge there’s probably some hypocrisy in that statement given that I’ve previously said ‘I’ll do what I do and 50 per cent of people can think I’m a genius and the other half can think I’m a f—wit’.”
Orr says Sydney’s dining culture makes it difficult for a restaurant to succeed.
“Sydney diners have always been a fickle bunch. We don’t have the culture of eating out that Melbourne does. It’s raining? Cancel the booking. It’s cold? Cancel the booking.
“Even now, closing the restaurant and packing in as many people as we can because the demand is frustratingly and thankfully there, we still get 10 to 15 no-shows an evening.”
Oscillate Wildly chef Karl Firla says he is closing the fine-diner he operates out of converted terrace on Australia Street to focus on other projects; partnering with global hospitality groups, perhaps, or developing a product range under the Oscillate Wildly brand.
“I’ve given everything to Oscillate and now I want to go and do other things,” says Firla, who bought the business in 2011 after taking on the role of head chef.
“In ten years there has not been one day when I have not wanted to come to work. However, I also don’t want to be the owner-operator of a business I’m not 100 per cent committed to.”
Firla doesn’t advise other chefs and restaurateurs against opening a restaurant in Sydney, but says it’s extremely important to identify what they want to achieve and sticking to that goal.
“There’s always opportunity to diversity your product, and lots of competition in the supply chain, but maintaining standards and integrity is paramount.”
Best says the ability to adapt to a changing market vital to a restaurant’s success in 2019.
“Every business is the same, whether it’s taxis or the music industry. There’s distributors, things change and you need to adapt. Some businesses will rise, some will stay the same. Others will just fall off the peg.”