Food and dining trends are in a state of constant change and Newcastle is no exception. Over the past 12 months, though, this city has experienced change of a different kind. Ongoing road, construction and transport works hit businesses reliant on foot and vehicular traffic hard. Some closed their doors temporarily. Others permanently. Many diversified to survive. Thankfully, the city’s dining scene continues to thrive. Here are some reasons why.
Hunter Street restaurants Subo and Restaurant Mason both opened in 2011 and both weathered the storm while holding on to their respective Good Food Guide chef’s hats.
“We have witnessed a lot of changes over the years. To start with, our guests have become more educated about food: how to cook it, where it comes from, how it is produced and how it relates to their well-being,” Suzie Vincent, who owns and runs Subo with husband and fellow chef Beau, tells Weekender.
“We have also seen the number of niche food offerings rise: places that just sell burgers or a certain type of cuisine. Right now, it feels as if the new energy in the city has prompted the opening of a variety of food businesses, from food trucks to large, million-dollar operations. There is an amazing amount of choice.”
Chris Thornton, chef and owner of Restaurant Mason, agrees: “There’s been huge changes since we opened our doors – not so much at the higher end of dining – but yes, Newcastle’s dining scene is thriving at the moment. We have a vast variety of cafes, pubs, specialty establishments, food trucks, markets and bars. The overall standard of food and beverages has come along in leaps and bounds, especially when it comes to specialty places like Bao Brothers, Asadon, Covered in Crumbs and Antojitos. But personally, I don’t think we need any new places for a while. The staff shortage in hospitality is real and the city needs time to replenish its stock rather than continually diluting the already shallow pool of staff available.”
Subo and Restaurant Mason both pay tribute to the fine-dining restaurants that preceded them.
“When it came to fine dining in Newcastle in 2011, there was Bacchus and Restaurant Deux,” Vincent says. “Bacchus was a beautiful restaurant with a talented team and it forged the way for people like us. We got lucky and found ourselves at the beginning of an inevitable build-up of momentum in the city. Perhaps we raised confidence in a market that was not yet defined.
“Our concept when opening Subo was not to be a fine diner. We offered something that was inclusive and approachable; quality food prepared at a high standard. However over time, our guests began to visit us for their special occasions and we decided to meet their expectations by creating an experience that was more special and intimate. The line that we now walk is somewhere between our original concept and meeting our guests’ expectations.”
Thornton credits Restaurant Mason’s ongoing success to “a combination of a lot of things – our staff’s commitment to customers, a strong work ethic and the constant drive to better ourselves and the product we provide. We are a fine dining restaurant but it’s our attitude and friendliness that makes us approachable, along with our style of food. We try to make every person who walks through our door feel welcome and taken care of”.
Says Vincent: “We feel extremely fortunate that operating Subo has provided our family with a roof over our heads, a safe car to drive, food on our table – it is a hard reality that this does not happen for everyone. We believe we have remained in business by keeping our standard high, by trying to keep our pricing fair and by creating a welcoming, warm and caring environment for both staff and guests alike.
“It has been a hard road of late for many small businesses in Newcastle, and we are excited to be moving into a more positive future.”
FOOD ON THE MOVE
Ben Neil and Nick Vivan of Newy Burger Co jumped on the “food truck” bandwagon early and are enjoying the ride. Flexibility is their recipe for success. They started out as a “pop-up” venture at already established venues before opening a permanent shopfront on Hunter Street. They even moved to a Honeysuckle location for a time while their stretch of Hunter Street was all but closed to traffic.
“For us, using a food truck was a way to expand,” Neil says. “To trial new locations and see what the response was like and be a part of major events. We were also doing a lot of catering which can be hard in marquee kitchens. Food truck catering for weddings, corporate groups and brand activations is really on trend. People want choice.
“Delivery is also on trend and we have just launched our own delivery scooter. We felt it was important to take responsibility for the delivery of the product to ensure quality rather than it being thrown on the floor of the car of some random.”
Purchasing a small trailer is a great way to test your idea before investing in a physical shopfront. But adverse weather can cost you money.
“It costs somewhere between $120,000 and $150,000 for a set-up like ours, maybe $50,000 or so for a small food trailer. The return is that you get exposure to events and locations you wouldn’t from a shop alone.”
Gareth Williams doesn’t own a food truck but is sold on mobile business ventures. The former pastry chef at Restaurant Mason branched out with pop-up bakery Covered in Crumbs last November.
“We didn’t expect it to grow so quickly. The game plan was just to test out the market. It’s been a low risk way to make business decisions based on the facts before investing money into something that may or might not work,” he says.
“We’ve been able to stay nimble and move with the business as it grows as opposed to having the added pressure of a lease and all the start-up costs before building the customer following you need to survive.”
Williams is also able to build up the hype for – and focus on – a single event and change his menu regularly, keeping customers on their toes. It helps that more venue owners are opening their spaces to pop-up ventures, too. Bolton Street’s newly opened Residency Kitchen is one example. The Fernery is another.
“The Fernery is a studio space in Islington with a courtyard run by the Woo sisters from High Tea with Mrs Woo. They have been great to collaborate with.
“These types of spaces give people like me the opportunity to try out an idea before making a commitment.”