On the table

You can tell where a restaurant situates itself in the market by looking at what’s on the table—or can you?

You can tell where a restaurant situates itself in the market by looking at what’s on the table—or can you?

Tabletop trends have been hit by the global financial crisis, but you can still tell a lot about a restaurant by its tableware.

Once upon a time you could tell how classy a restaurant was by how much they trusted you with the tableware. A tabletop with chunky glass stemware and small, round plates was saying either they don’t think you’re a good class of customer, or that they don’t trust their staff to pay attention when cleaning up. If they drag out the cut-rim crystal stuff and bring your main on a big square plate, chances were you’re in the top end of town. Back then you could guess how much you’re paying for dinner before you’d even seen the menu.

But recent trends in tableware have complicated that process. Tighter financial conditions seem to have led to greater competition between restaurants to up the ante with presentation in some areas, while consciously cutting back in others. Which makes sense—a small investment in linen and cut-rim stemware will help customers feel better about paying a reasonable price for their main meal.

“We are seeing better glassware being demanded,” says Malcolm Lockie from Bormioli Rocco, the European glassware manufacturers whose origins are in Parma from 1825, but can be traced back to the Middle Ages. “People are trading up—we’re seeing a trend of trading up to improve their glassware and crockery. We’re particularly seeing it happen in the mid-market and up—everyone is looking at how they can create a better image.”

That trend pre-dates the financial shenanigans of the last twelve months: “The market up until last year was clearly trending towards larger bowls in terms of wine glasses,” says Brian Romer, CEO of Phillip Lazarus. “Those restaurants that cater more for the top end of town definitely looked at the fine rim glassware.

“In terms of crockery, without a doubt it’s the same as the glassware. They’re looking at shapes and presentation. Large plates are considered necessary for decoration. Cutlery would be reflective of that trend as well, but there’s lots of good stuff out there that would suit a myriad of restaurants. It’s not unusual to see Bogart (by Tablekraft, distributed by Tomkin) in the best restaurant in town. But certainly in plates, design and presentation are key issues for restaurateurs.”

But at the same time, linen tablecloths—an easy indicator of fine dining—doesn’t seem to be following those trends. According to Kim Yang of Also (who supply the industry with cleaning and delivery of serviettes, tablecloths, towels, sheets and uniforms), the demand for linen tablecloths is increasingly the preserve of fine-dining establishments. “We found a few years back most restaurants would have linen, where now its restricted to the fine dining,” she says. “I think cost is an issue for people in these tough economic times, but generally speaking we’ve maintained customer numbers. But I know some of our mid-range restaurants who won’t have linen at lunch, but will have it at dinner. Or they’ll use our additional services like the tea towels and uniforms, but not the tablecloths.”

That observation—that some restaurants are still ordering the better quality items but not always using them—is echoed by Malcolm Lockie of Bormioli Rocco. “Certainly there seems to be more demand for larger size bowls in wineglasses and also wine specific shapes, and these might be offered when someone turns up with the $100 bottle of wine,” he says.

Through the glass

The shift perceived by distributors is echoed by that seen at the consumer level—last month the Australian Magazine reported a change in consumer attitudes to restaurant wine service, with a greater expectation of drinks being served in their appropriate glasses (Burgundy in a Burgundy balloon, and Chianti in a Chianti glass and so on. So it pays to know the difference between your types of glassware—somewhat cheaper, rolled rim wine glasses are significantly less likely to chip. Libbey is probably the market leader here—they’re durable and don’t tip over easily.

Cut rim crystal or crystalline receptacles look more upmarket than glass, but chip more easily. The more upmarket brands like Bormioli Rocco and Luigi Bormioli own this space in the market, with the very top of the market being penetrated by Riedel. The downside of expensive stemare is not only their susceptibility to chipping, but their vulnerability to staff who don’t concentrate when they’re polishing them, snapping the stem off and costing you plenty to replace them. Still, some restaurants will still use this hierarchy depending on where they situate themselves.

The exception to this rule, says Brian Romer of Phillip Lazarus, is tumblers: “You’ll see our tumblers across the spectrum. That’s due to
the many designs Libbey offer, and probably because tumblers get beaten up more.” The other popular move, says Malcolm Lockie, is towards embossing: “A lot of restaurants are using lines or a logo as the fill level. That’s a growing trend. Bormioli Rocco has a range of stemware called ‘premium’ which is wine-specific, with larger size bowls, and is ideal for restaurants who want to serve specific wines, like pinot or shiraz, in the correct shape glass.”

The future

Whether or not these trends have been affected in the longer term by the global financial crisis is hard to say—and it also depends on who you ask.

“At the top end of town, there are signs of business coming back,” says Malcolm Lockie. “I hear there’s a bit of activity picking up. I guess it’s fair to say the market’s been shocked a bit in the last 12 months. But I think the market’s decided things are
on the up.”

However, according to Brian Romer from Phillip Lazarus, “It’s far too early to see if the trend has been killed off by the global financial crisis. I’d say the top end of town is still doing it harder. There’s no way the business is as buoyant as last year.
It’s slowed down because in August last year we had interest rate hikes, then the markets crashed in September and October.”

But the problem with making confident predications, says Malcolm Lockie, is there’s a significant lag between distributors’ business and what’s happening at the coalface. “There’s too much of a lag for us to know if things are turning around. We just got those impressions from talking to distributors and customers. Also, the market varies from state to state, so what’s happening in Melbourne is different to what’s happening in Brisbane. There are also variations in product demand, style and sizes from each state.”

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