Public awareness is a vital ingredient for the Australian restaurant industry and The Australian Financial Review has generated as much as 20 per cent more trade for featured establishments with the debut of its Top 100 Restaurants list.
The new peer-reviewed list was launched in May to bring together top end restaurants with high-income AFR readers and, according to some of the top nominees, it has been a success.
“Dining is a key part of life and business for many readers and it’s a real growth industry – one of Australia’s growth industries of our time – so the list was a really good opportunity to get into this space,” AFR editor Michael Stutchbury said.
“If you go back a few decades, Australia was a bit of a culinary backwater – but after a couple of decades of prosperity, culinary culture is a feature of Australian life.”
The list was topped by Sydney’s Sepia, which also made it into the second tier of the World’s Top 50 Restaurants as judged by the UK’s Restaurant magazine, along with Victorian spots Attica and Brae and Sydney’s Quay.
But for smaller outfits, like number eight on the list – the 30-seat Sixpenny, in Sydney’s Stanmore – the accolade came as a surprise and provided the influence needed to boost the restaurant’s bookings to full capacity across the week.
“We’re only a little restaurant – we cook for 150 people a week,” chef and co-owner James Parry said. “We weren’t expecting [a spot in the top 10] at all. We thought we’d be in the top 50.
“I was talking to Jill Dupleix about it the other day – you can always gauge the impact by our reservations. We’ve only been in the AFR once or twice before and with the amount of reservations we’ve had, there’s obviously a new market.
“Fridays and Saturdays at Sixpenny are always full but Wednesdays and Thursdays operate at about 70 per cent capacity – and now they are full.”
Julianne Bagnato, co-owner of Brae, agrees the list has had a direct impact on her restaurant, located in Victoria’s Otway outside the small town of Birregurra, 1.5 hours out of Melbourne.
Unlike most restaurants which receive a certain amount of customers from passing foot traffic, Brae relies on media to stay in the minds of its potential customers. Visits to its website are a mark of interest – which in turn leads to bookings.
“We get a lot of hits on the website, inquiries in the next week, and then it takes a week or two for people to make plans and follow through with actual bookings,” Ms Bagnato explains.
“For that week following the Top 100, we got four to five times as many hits to our website as we normally would and that followed through to bookings.
“We take internet bookings three months ahead and recently we’ve had to make a decision to extend that to six months, because particularly on Saturdays now, you basically can’t get in.”
The Top 100 was also another avenue to get out to a different market and a different crowd.
“The AFR market is probably aware of us if they read the food and wine pages, but it extended beyond that to people who might not necessarily read those pages,” Ms Bagnato said.
“This puts it right in their hands, it’s a whole new group of people hearing about it and making a booking.”
Melbourne chef and restaurateur Andrew McConnell said the AFR list, put together from votes by chefs and restaurant owners rather than food writers, made it stand out as an influence, not only on consumers, but across the restaurant industry.
Mr McConnell is responsible for several of venues that made the list, from Cutler and Co. at number five to more casual, walk-in spots like Cumulus Inc. (7) and Supernormal (24).
“Being peer voted, it’s also a reflection of what’s happening out there in the marketplace, both long term and in terms of trends that are happening, what people are eating right now. Take Cumulus – we’ve been there eight years, it’s quite casual and usually the top 10 is reserved for fine dining,” he said.
“It’s really surprising and flattering. It’s a reflection of how more and more people want to eat in a more casual setting.”
Newspapers were important to the restaurant industry and to all industries, he said, offering “complete relevance”.
“It’s not something we rely on or take for granted, but it’s exposing what we do to a broader demographic across different mediums and different publications.”
Newspapers also offer a more credible base than online media for James Parry.
“It’s a different level to bloggers – I think people take it more seriously,” Mr Parry said. “No blogger in Australia that gets you that level.
“You could also compare, say, The Sydney Morning Herald to [a food magazine] – it has a good base but you don’t get nearly as much coverage as an award in the Herald.
“People who buy [magazines] are ones who are interested in food; [newspaper readers] buy it for different kinds of reasons and might happen to see the food section.”
Julianne Bagnato said of media coverage like the Top 100 was “really important – even though a lot of us like to pretend it’s not”.
“You don’t like your reason for being to be getting on these lists. That’s not what you’re there for; you’re there to provide a fantastic experience for your clientele.
“But to be recognised on a list like this it confirms in the minds of those people that you have achieved what you set out to achieve. They may have heard of you before, considered coming, but it forces their hand – get on line, pick up the phone, make a booking.
“It’s bums on seats and that’s what it’s about. We don’t have walk by traffic – people make plans and talk to their friends, it’s a process, you need to be in the minds of people, so it does have a direct impact, so we’re very grateful.”