It’s tough out there for restaurants, cafes and bars. Covid has already had huge impacts on the hospitality industry, with Omicron’s fast spread resulting in staff shortages that have required many spots to close their doors temporarily.
We’re also not going out as much as we once were: a recent Hospitality Association member survey reported that at least half of respondents have seen revenue drop of 40%, 71% will be reducing staff and operating hours, and 44% will require additional funding to keep operating. So it’s essential we keep supporting our local favourites as much as we are able to, whether it’s making a booking or purchasing a voucher if you’re unable to head out safely.
Sarah Meikle, CEO of the Wellington Culinary Events Trust and deputy chair of the New Zealand Events Association, looks at what our cities and Aotearoa might be like without our favourite cafes, restaurants and bars.
Let’s get real. The future of hospitality is looking pretty bleak right now. After a flurry of Christmas lunches and New Year cheer, things have well and truly gone south. More people are embracing flexible arrangements and working from home, others are wary of venturing out in the Omicron environment, and many are a little more risk averse than usual. Hands up who wants to be a close contact?
As a result, previously bustling eateries are feeling the pinch, particularly when there’s limited financial support for operators. For many it’s going to be too little too late, riding the COVID wave for nearly two years certainly hasn’t been easy.
A future without a large chunk of hospitality venues is a big possibility, so what does that look like? I think about the incredible restaurants I’ve eaten at across the country and around the world, enjoying locally grown produce on a plate next to wine made 100m down the road. What if they weren’t there?
For me, my travel experiences are all about my dining experiences. This is where we have conversations, reminisce about the experiences of the day, but more importantly, connect with the people and produce of that neighbourhood. I get a sense of the ‘fabric’ of a place.
The whole reason I go somewhere is to experience something new, meet the locals, eat what they eat and click with what they do. They say that a good wine is the window on to the vineyard, it reflects the terroir. If I’m travelling and can’t dine out as the locals do, my glass would be literally and metaphorically empty.
I think about some of the best meals that I’ve had. Sure, I’ve had my fair share of dining in award-winning restaurants, but my fondest memories are much closer to home. They are at places where they know you; the food is tasty and you feel comfortable.
Some call these places their ‘third place’. Not home, not work, but that other place where you can essentially relax and just hang out. Imagine if these places just disappeared? I think of some of the best meals I've had in just the last couple of months. They were about sharing experiences with good friends in familiar places that celebrated great, seasonal food prepared by caring chefs who love what they do. They show true hospitality. And sure, I could cook a meal at home, but quite frankly, it just wouldn’t be the same.
Growing up in ‘the business’. I’ve always been drawn to the buzz of a restaurant, the soothing sound of glasses clinking and the hum of conversation in a dining room. Friends catching up over dinner, families celebrating birthdays, the shy eagerness of first dates set against booming business people winding down (or up) after a day in the office.
When you multiply these moments by the multitude of restaurants, bars and cafes in a city, that’s when you begin to build the social fabric that gives a place its heart and soul. The hundreds of conversations, and opportunities for chance connections that can turn into pivotal moments in people’s lives. How many relationships were born out of waiting in line for a drink at the bar?
Every time we go into a restaurant, bar or cafe we’re entering someone else’s world. Food is a way to retain our cultural heritage, an essential expression of our identity. And contrary to many people’s belief, New Zealand does have a food culture. It’s a burgeoning and evolving melting pot of food experiences. This is particularly so for our migrant communities who have brought their intoxicating spices, and a taste of home to their new surroundings. And, we all benefit from this delicious exchange of flavour and thinking.
This thinking is in line with the late and great chef Anthony Bourdain, whose books and travel shows were much more meaningful than your usual ‘celebrity chef goes travelling and eats local’, but rather a true reflection of culture and place.
In his words: "Meals make the society, [and] hold the fabric together in lots of ways that were charming and interesting and intoxicating to me. The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself.”
If we lose our restaurants, cafes and bars, we essentially lose our context. We lose out on all those moments and shared connections that give a city its identity, and makes us who we are.
So, what does life look like without hospitality? To me it doesn’t look like much of a life at all.