Choosing an optimal restaurant site is largely driven by location and demographics yet there is a host of subtle factors - from foot traffic to council fees for al fresco dining – to thoroughly investigate before locking into a lease agreement.
Hospitality consultant and restaurant broker Michael Fischer echoes the sentiments of many seasoned restaurateurs when he says site selection relies on “a lot of dynamics and interplay – and an initial instinct that a location is suitable isn’t necessarily a good arbiter.”
A former long-time restaurant owner himself who once headed the Restaurant and Catering Association of Australia, Mr Fischer says it is still surprising how many budding restaurateurs fail to drill down into the nuances of their chosen location and demographic.
“Even if you believe an area’s demographic is the right fit for your outlet, research needs to be done into whether the locals are diners – do they go out? What is the demographic’s disposable income? Is the location truly convenient - can people park? And a big one is, is the passing foot traffic truly as high as you have been told?
“There really are no hard and fast rules when choosing a restaurant site but being observant and knowledgeable are of far more importance than any gut feelings.”
Sydney restaurant owner Pete Fischer discovered this first hand when, after running bars for a major hotel chain for over 20 years, his first foray into finding his own bar site became somewhat a baptism of fire.
No less than two and a half years and five false starts later, he finally found a suitable small corner CBD site for his popular cosy bar The Swinging Cat.
“In one of those false starts we paid the heads of agreement (the precursor to the lease agreement) and then they sold the building on us,” Mr Fischer says. “We’d been working on securing that particular site for four months - and we couldn’t have really have foreseen what was coming either. When you’re starting out there is simply a lot to learn.”
Securing a site for his restaurant Nola in Sydney’s burgeoning Barangaroo precinct proved more straight-forward: operator Lend Lease chose the Nola concept of New Orleans-southern American-style cuisine because it was so unique, while Mr Fischer was drawn by Lend Lease’s vested interest in driving Barangaroo’s popularity as a destination.
“My biggest advice to anyone seeking a restaurant or bar site is look at who your landlord is, because by and large you’ll be ‘married’ to them for 10 years or however long your lease period.”
Small is sweet
If that little cottage on a stunning North Coast headland or heritage house in the Southern Highlands looks like it a dream site for dining, think again.
Destination restaurants in far flung locations are some of the hardest to make work, says hospitality expert David Wasserman, who as principal of public relations and marketing firm Wasamedia has helped launch well over 100 restaurants.
“They can – but not always – be fraught with issues – like being hard to get to, or only accessible by water, and they’re usually very dependent on the chef and can be extremely seasonal,” Mr Wasserman says.
Small however can be extra sweet. “What really do tend to work are local gems, the local restaurants and cafes in suburban, village-y areas where there’s a ready-made crowd and a real social setting, like Lillah in leafy suburban Lane Cove and (in Melbourne) The Tuckshop, or The Parlour in Brighton which is patronised by local footballers and cricket stars like Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting.”
Being on a second floor is a negative – diners simply do not like walking up stairs, Mr Wasserman says – but a view is always good news. “It is a bit of a misnomer that you can’t have a good restaurant that also has terrific views.”
John Fink, co-owner of iconic high-end Sydney restaurants Otto, Quay, and Bennelong naturally agrees. Yet Mr Fink is quick to point out that success in less desirable places is completely possible, providing an outlet has the correct business formula. He cites a humble café called Cavalier in Crows Nest, located on the busy Pacific Highway, as an example.
“They (Cavalier) were just a little tiny café on the Crows Nest shopping strip,” Mr Fink says. “But their food and coffee is so fabulous they had to move to bigger premises around the corner to the highway where they face directly at the traffic and they’re still doing very well in spite of it.”