Joe Gibbons sits down with two experts to discuss food trends, the future and the challenges facing the industry in Bermuda today.
Why do so many people dream of owning their own restaurant? Maybe because we all enjoy dining out and associate the experience with pleasurable and memorable events: birthdays, engagements, romance, exotic foods, travel and, yes, even a wild night on the town. So we take this one step further and think that owning a restaurant means all these things will be ours, night after night, week after week.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. When you tell people in the industry that you are thinking about opening your own bistro, they give you that look, the kind reserved for a sick puppy. A look of sympathy. They know what you don’t. They know that running a restaurant takes more than buying friends drinks; it must be an all-consuming passion, a desire to work long and late hours, to negotiate with suppliers, to abandon relationships. In short, it is not a game for amateurs.
Owning a restaurant in Bermuda has its own set of challenges. A tight labour force means staffing is always an issue, and turnover can mean waiting weeks or months for a replacement. Power and propane costs exceed those charged in just about any other jurisdiction and can seriously tip a balance sheet toward the red. Throw in medical insurance and even the smallest cafe is looking at a few thousand dollars of fixed costs before selling a sandwich. In the past five years, thousands of residents have left the island, tourism is lagging and money is tight. For restaurateurs, these are big challenges.
With this backdrop, The Bermudian asked two industry leaders to comment on what they see ahead in the coming year and what Bermuda can expect from and do for its hospitality partners. Teresa Chatfield, director of MEF Ltd., and Philip Barnett, president of IRG Ltd., together run the islands’ main group of restaurants, including, for MEF, Little Venice, Fourways, La Trattoria, L’Oriental, Mickey’s, Lido and Harbourfront, and, for IRG, Barracuda Grill, Hog Penny, Victoria Grill, Pickled Onion and Frog and Onion Pub. Between them, this is a big piece of the pie.
First, we examined training and service levels, as many restaurants are moving to a more casual style. Chatfield pointed out that by “casual” people imply a lack of professionalism or formal training, but she noted that on-the-job training has been the industry standard. She adds that many well-known names in the industry – Heston Blumenthal among them – trained on the job. Barnett agreed, stressing that hands-on training is essential to being a great service professional, and personal dedication to the industry is essential. “Unfortunately there are many who equate serving as a simple task that only requires the ability to carry a plate,” he adds, acknowledging the problem in Bermuda when restaurants have lost personnel through the recession or immigration issues and have been faced with recruitment challenges. Finding available staff on the island is clearly an issue within the industry. “There needs to be a recognition of different staff needed for different environments,” Chatfield says. “A deli has different needs to Fourways.”
While labour challenges exist, and some may see the slow but steady growth in casual eateries a sign of changing times, cost is also a factor in determining the style of restaurants. Most Bermudians talk about how expensive it is to eat out on the island, and they ask what the industry is doing about it.
“The cheaper restaurants in Bermuda…are never going to be as cheap as their U.S. counterparts as the cost of basic labour and product is much higher, and this is something we tend to overlook,” says Chatfield. Barnett adds, “Let’s be very clear on the issues of eating out being expensive in Bermuda. [Electricity] costs, roughly, 50 cents/kilowatt hour in Bermuda and only seven cents in Canada, so at the low end, don’t expect to see $1.99 specials.”
Restaurants, however, have tried to respond to this challenge. Barnett says that Victoria Grill has introduced the first fixed-price mark-up on wines in Bermuda: a flat charge of $20 on all bottles. This is a great idea, and one that is designed to attract oenophiles. MEF has offered their winter Dine Around deal for years, and early in 2013 L’Oriental offered 20 percent off its food menu. In season, Seabreeze offers small tapas, sushi and less expensive items to entice locals to an affordable night out.
Across the board, high-end dining is thought to be on par with its international counterparts, despite our higher operating costs, and visitors must surely recognize this. As always, it is important to compare apples to apples. “I am always impressed after returning from a trip…to see that Bermuda is competitively priced,” says Barnett.
Low fat, gluten free, diabetic, vegetarian, vegan…all are buzzwords in the food-service industry. Driven by hype or hips, diners are asking the industry to cater to their perceived needs. Will their preferences seriously change menus in 2013? “If you have to specially produce items for a limited audience, the cost of production is going to be much higher,” says Barnett. “If customers balk at the price, the restaurant will not see the value in this.” Chatfield agrees. “Healthier food is not an option adhered to by the entire island, and so the healthy-food option still remains a niche market,” she says.
How about gimmicks? Some Vegas hotspots give diners tablets for ordering, while others allow customers to access their menu and ordering systems through cell-phone apps. Cool, fun, trendy for sure. Coming to a place near you soon? No. These things are costly and remain firmly at the gimmicky end of the industry.
“There is, however, a missed opportunity for all restaurants to promote local produce and fish,” asserts Chatfield, referring to a lack of clearly defined Bermudian cuisine. New emphasis on tourism initiatives may change this, as locavore foods coupled with cultural highlights now play a prominent role in travel promotion. Cooking events, greater sponsorship of local farmers and chefs and the involvement of culinary students from Bermuda College could help attract visitors to the island. Barnett believes this is slowly starting to happen. “If someone dares to be different, then reward them with your patronage,” he says. “That is the way to establish a culinary identity.”
We asked Chatfield and Barnett to identify three areas likely to make life for food-service professionals easier, to open new avenues of business and improve Bermuda‚” restaurant industry. They agreed, without question, that the education and training of young Bermudians is a high priority. Getting exposure in schools at an early age to all aspects of tourism and hospitality would encourage more Bermudians to join the industry. “[We need] more Bermudians interested and entering the industry at a young age, allowing for lifelong professionals who understand the industry from the bottom up,” says Barnett. “Improve the education system and the components of hospitality so they are introduced at an early age,” adds Chatfield.
The second requirement for a vibrant industry is more customers. Bermuda must have more people living and working here if we are to keep these businesses healthy and, as Barnett puts it, “…to take out the horrific seasonality of the industry, [thereby] encouraging more Bermudians to work in year-round employment.” Chatfield agrees. “The island needs an influx of several thousand people to help rebuild the industries tha
t are struggling and to recreate real jobs for those who are unemployed.”
Finally, relief from high fixed costs would help the industry, in particular the exceedingly high costs of power and propane gas, expenses that throw normal restaurant balance sheets out of whack.
So, will 2013 be a year of change for restaurants? We have seen some game changes already, most of them good for consumers. While some lament the passing of the Newport Room, the gastropub is a hit. We have steakhouses that can compete with any in North America, and food-and-wine specials exist to tempt our wallets. Bermuda is, however, in a recession and short a few thousand people. We are all suffering the economic pinch, and that makes it hard to succeed, but failure is not an option. We have an industry that needs attention from all of us. There are jobs to be created, money to be made and fun nights out to be enjoyed. All it will take is proper training, a more diversified and vibrant economy, hard work and you.