The Death of Fine Dining, or is it about to be reincarnated?
Most of the major transformations in the F&B industry have taken place in the last decade or so. Our plates became smaller, our cameras began eating before we did, we started paying more attention to where and how the food on our plates was sourced, we wanted more flavour and less pretence on our plates, technology began impacting what and where we ate, farm to table became a thing and so much more. The year 2020 was supposed to be one of celebration – the end of a decade and the beginning of a new one but all was suddenly curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, one thing surely did accelerate in 2020 and that was – more change.
Consumer preferences were evolving even before the Covid-19 pandemic took the world by storm. Millennials and Gen Z’s were leading this transformation, being more inclined to dine at fun and social dining establishments. Places with unpretentious vibes and atmospheres, nice interiors, great food and most importantly, a value-for-money proposition were now destinations of choice as opposed to fine dining restaurants which were, sometimes arguably, perceived as classist. Millennials and Gen Z’s saw these restaurants, sometimes incorrectly, as places where beautifully manicured, questionable food was delivered in small portions and charged at ridiculously high prices ordinary people could ill afford.
These evolving consumer preferences towards casual dining had a significant downward impact on the fine-dining industry across the globe. In Asia, however, the fine dining industry did manage to make a come-back in the last five years thanks to San Pellegrino’s Asia’s 50 Best Awards as well as the launch of the Michelin Guide in Asia across six thriving countries including Japan, China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand. These two initiatives garnered huge publicity for many restaurants across the globe and were responsible for humanising the fine dining industry by putting an emphasis on the backgrounds and unique culinary talents of its award-winning chefs. This also gave rise to a new demographic of international tourists who ‘travelled to eat’ on a global scale, putting these sought-after restaurants as highlights on their travel itineraries as restaurant reservations at these places skyrocketed.
Gaggan, led by its colourful and charismatic Chef Gaggan Anand, awarded as one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants for three consecutive years, was inundated with reservations from people all around the world. I myself have been asked on several occasions by friends travelling to Bangkok about whether or not I had connections to Gaggan’s restaurant which was typically booked out months in advance, to get a seat there. Unfortunately, I could not be of much help to them.
At the other end of the spectrum, The Michelin Guide’s arrival in Thailand came with a much-needed twist. Not only did its launch shed light on the best talents in the fine dining industry, but it also expanded its reach beyond fine dining and into the street-food culture scene here. Recognising the need to appeal to the growing demographic of Millennials and Generation Z consumers, – which as of 2020 comprises of 1 billion people in Asia with a combined spending power of 1 Trillion USD – Michelin not only provided publicity but also, in an unprecedented move, handed out Michelin stars to street food vendors, a substantial shift from its traditional approach. The iconic Jay Fai, a street-food vendor from Bangkok known globally for her signature crab omelette was recently invited by Rene Redzepi to Denmark to demonstrate her signature crab omelette to a group of well-known global foodies at the MAD symposium. The publicity certainly helped boost the hype of her food-stall but it also earned her a spot on Netflix’s popular show Chefs Table.
Things seemed to be looking up for the fine dining industry in Asia but it was short-lived. In came Covid-19. Aside from being an unprecedented and absolutely devastating public-health crisis, Covid-19 has also been the fine dining industry’s greatest challenge to date forcing an unimaginable number of restaurants around the world to shut their doors, some to never reopen again. The economic toll of the pandemic on the restaurant industry has not been evenly distributed. Fast-food restaurants such as pizza chains have increased sales during the pandemic while fine dining establishments have seen major declines in the range of 75%-85% with no signs of easing up.
The fine dining industry was severely impacted primarily because they appealed to a smaller demographic of customers and typically had higher operating costs such as rent (because of their establishments at prime locations), higher labour costs (requiring more sophisticated talent) and higher food and beverage costs. The lockdown in countries and border restrictions mean that these restaurants are no longer able to target International food travellers, a primary customer segment. Many fine dining restaurants stayed off the band-wagon of delivery services as it was seen as not only taboo but also because the impact to the quality of their dishes in terms of logistics constraints was a cause of concern. Many of the fine dining establishments that exist today also did not heavily embrace digital marketing as they relied mostly on the old school, word-of-mouth marketing to lure consumers in.
Finally, fine dining establishments were left behind as cities locked down with curfews and restrictions on dining in forcing the ‘stay-at-home’ wave. A large majority of home dwellers began to cook at home for friends and family or alternatively order from their favourite restaurants via third party delivery providers. Although some of these trends will be reversed after the Covid pandemic subsides, a recent study by Mckinsey indicated a portion of the dining at home trend will be here to stay, causing a loss to the US restaurant industry of approximately $50 billion dollars.
To cope, the fine dining industry has been reinventing itself. Chef Garima Arora, recently opened HERE in Bangkok, an Indian canteen-style casual dining spot promising a relaxed and playful vibe while still maintaining the chef’s signature mode of Indian cuisine. This is a paradigm shift for this famous female chef of Gaa which ranked 15 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2019. On the same note, Rene Redzepi also began selling ice-cream and 18 dollar burgers at the world famous Noma, shifting his focus to serving children and families during the pandemic.
So, does that mean fine dining is really dead? No. Fine-dining as we knew it may fade away forever but it will be reincarnated into a new phenomenon. The industry has been rattled hard by the pandemic, and some of the behaviours and changes that were already starting to transform the industry have been accelerated by the pandemic by approximately five years in a matter of months, according to some industry experts.
At some point in time, dining in fine dining establishments will once again be a pleasure that diners around the world will be able to enjoy but it is up to the industry to embrace some of the shifts that have taken place. It is important for fine dining restaurant operators to adapt to the evolving requirements of consumers to preserve their appeal by embracing digital marketing technologies to reach out to their client base, making their menus more relevant and value-for-money driven, innovating their cuisine, concepts and processes. Finally, they will need to tap into the food-delivery scene making their food available on the numerous third party delivery platforms so that their food can be finally accessible by all.
About the author: Rohit Sachdev is Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Soho Hospitality, an interior design, food and beverage consulting and digital marketing agency with a restaurant development arm comprising five brands: Above Eleven, Charcoal, Havana Social, Cantina Italian Kitchen and Soho Pizza. For more information please go to www.sohohospitality.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.