Is there any tangible benefit to keeping your kitchen open late?
Somewhere in every capital city except Melbourne, there is a group of diners wandering around looking for late-opening restaurants, and despite plenty of late-openers being around, they’ve been unable to find them. It’s been a point of complaint for years in Sydney and Brisbane, and various things including liquor laws, culture, and the weather have all been blamed for commercial kitchens closing before 10pm. But the real question is, is there any tangible benefit to staying open late?
Andrew Cibej, the owner of Vini Enoteca in Surry Hills, and the newly-opened Bertha in Sydney city, has always kept his doors open late, and plans to continue to do so at the new place: “Vini has quite a small menu, so its easy to have the whole menu on offer late. At Bertha the menu will be structured differently. We probably won’t keep the whole menu on late, but it’s more of a tasting/ sharing menu, so there’ll probably be more things on offer, but less stand-alone dishes.”
Although it would be nice to think Cibej had a clever business plan which allowed him to figure out exactly when diners would be dropping by, he admits the decision to open late was driven merely by a ‘first-time operator’s’ desire to be all things to all people.
“We thought because of our proximity to The Belvoir Street Theatre, we’d get a lot of post-theatre trade,” he explains. “Early on we actually had a post-theatre deal with the theatre, but interestingly, we never got much of the post-theatre trade. Lots of pre-theatre, but that was one that never really took off. We persisted only in so far as the food is prepared to order, but is very quick, so if someone wants to eat later, it’s just good service to accommodate them. And hopefully at the end of the day you end up being remembered as that place you can go to late.”
Although well-prepared for the late night crowds, Cibej found there wasn’t often a demand for the kitchen to be open past 10pm in summer, and even earlier in winter: “In winter people tend to eat earlier and finish earlier. But our prevailing attitude is we’re happy to provide a meal just as part of our service. Having said that, we’ve been doing it for four and a half years and we’re still doing OK.”
He says the cost of keeping the kitchen open is negligible—“It’s more the cost of keeping the floor on. The kitchen is flexible enough that you can clean around it, and there’s other stuff to do. But the floor, you can’t close down if no-one’s around. We normally have two floor staff to close, so the economic benefit of staying open is miniscule at best. It’s more about the intangible things. It’s a marketing thing.”
For Ron Yap, one of the owners of the Little Singapore chain of restaurants in Brisbane, customers remain the biggest barrier to keeping the kitchen open. In a nutshell, he says, they’re not around.
“Brisbane is very much a country town mentality compared with Sydney and Melbourne,” he says. “Things used to shut at 9pm when I came here back in 1993. Now it’s better, but I still think Brisbane is different to Sydney and Melbourne. We’re about seven years behind Sydney.”
Yap says they decided to keep the kitchen at their first Sunnybank restaurant open because 70 per cent of their patrons were Asian, and they had a cultural expectation to be able to dine at any hour. Even then, he says, “To be honest, we generally close at 10pm, or 10.30pm or 11pm. The cost of keeping the kitchen open is not much more because there’s a demand. In one of our other restaurants, Little Hong Kong, we initially opened to 1am or 1.30am, and then we scaled that down to 12am. Even today, it’s on demand. If the customers are there, we’ll stay open. But generally speaking midnight is the latest we’ll open.”
In Sydney, East Ocean Restaurant in Haymarket is open till 2am every night of the year, and director Henry Tam says this was always driven by the core market of Asian customers: “There is always a need in the Asian society for late supper. With East Ocean’s strong background in providing authentic Chinese food, Asian customers raised the demand and we decided to fulfil that.”
“The economic benefit of staying open is miniscule at best. It’s more about the intangible things. It’s a marketing thing.” Andrew Cibej, Vini Enoteca, Sydney
He adds that customers didn’t just turn up—there was a lot of advertising required to drag them in. There weren’t many other late-openers around at the time.
“There are not that many restaurants willing to do late supper because the market size cannot provide the revenue to support the operations,” he explains. “Therefore, only restaurants that are fully-equipped and well-resourced can support such an operation.”
The cultural factor was important in getting them up and running, then, but Tam says, “we believe it is not the key factor. We have seen Caucasian customers coming in for late supper. The success factor is still the quality of food, beverage and waiting services East Ocean Restaurant could provide.”
Ron Yap agrees that this isn’t only driven by the majority of their (Asian) customers: “In the last 12 months we have had a massive increase in non-Asian customers. We’re talking about a 28 per cent increase. I think it’s because they go to Asia, see the late-night hawker stalls and so on, and think, ‘why isn’t it like that at home’? Then through word of mouth they find us in Sunnybank.”
So things are changing, and Ron Yap believes it’s for the better, but there is still further to go. “I believe having a late-night restaurant would work in Brisbane, but only if patrons go out there. A lot of owners say there’s no customers. It’s a catch 22; restaurants don’t open because there are no patrons, but patrons don’t go out because there’s no restaurants open.
“I think the GFC contributed to people’s dining habits, but to what extent, I’m not sure. But for us I think we had hit a sweet spot, because our dishes cost on average about $9. We keep it simple—it’s a casual dining set-up. We offer quick, decent customer service. We aspire to being the Asian McDonalds.”
Still, it’s a stark contrast with the doyenne of late night dining in Melbourne, the Melbourne Supper Club. The chic, leather-clad venue serves food like oysters and foie gras until 6am on weekends. General manager Rufino Ramos recently told R&C magazine the club has been staying open into the wee hours since its inception ten years ago and has enjoyed a loyal following ever since.
“We are a preferred late-night venue in Melbourne, so our menu is focused on snacks and wine-friendly food. You would be surprised how much pate de foie gras and roquefort cheese we sell at 3am,” he says.
Ramos says the city’s late-night licensing laws make a significant difference in the number of late-night dining options available compared to other locations, but suggests there are also cultural factors.
“We often find we are a stop-over between bar destinations—not just a last stop on the way home. We are also very popular with neighbouring hotel guests, who might be jetlagged or arrive too late into Melbourne to use the hotel’s facilities. These types of people have very sophisticated wine and food tastes,” he explains.
Ramos also manages another late-night dining venue, The European, which serves more substantial meals.
“Last year, we extended The European’s trading hours to 3am seven days a week. We find more and more people are coming in for an eye fillet steak, spaghetti marinara or tuna nicoise at 2am,” he says.
Ramos admits there are extra costs and administrative burdens associated with keeping a kitchen open past midnight, but says they pay off if the balance is right.
”Overall, we have found it a lucrative and rewarding endeavour. I don’t think it would be immodest to say we are Melbourne’s premier late-night eating destination, so the rewards are there for us.”