Guest Column

On my radar: Restaurants serving up fresh ideas

2017-04-02 07:49

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Dion Chang

A walk through one of the popular malls in Jozi during the recent public holiday confirmed just how squeezed consumers are this year, and how challenging retail currently is. Shops in prime locations stood empty and for the ones that were open for business, the boredom of idle sales assistants was palpable.

To say that retail is going through a rough patch would be an understatement. Stuttafords is in business rescue, Busby announced that it will be closing all Mango and Nine West stand-alone stores and moving to a store-within-a-store presence in Edgars, while Edcon itself is frantically restructuring. In the US, the iconic Macy’s department store announced that it will close 68 of its outlets this year. Small comfort that we’re not alone.

Most of the blame goes to a sluggish economy, and the “hourglass economy” is a particularly harsh reality in South Africa: the 1% are getting exponentially richer, the poorest of the poor are becoming more destitute, and the middle class is being squeezed for every last cent.

However, new trends in retail and changed consumer behaviour are also challenging tried-and-tested templates of business. The on-demand economy is growing in leaps and bounds, and the more we get accustomed to getting what we want – from mobility to food – via an app, the less inclined we are to endure the hassle of parking and crowds just to pick through homogenous retail offerings. The slow but steady rise of online shopping in South Africa shows that shoppers have become more trusting of the e-commerce process.

Add to this the fact that more and more people are tuning in to the mantra of “less stuff, more stories”: in other words, spending your hard-earned cash (and shrinking disposable income) on experiences that add to your memories, rather than material goods.

So, if we’re spending less on material goods, then surely restaurants are doing okay? We all need to eat, so wouldn’t eating out be one of those experiences we’d rather spend money on? That depends who you’re catering to. The opening of numerous, high-end restaurants (with menu prices that would give many indigestion) in Jozi shows that the 1% are still happily spending on gastronomic experiences, while the middle classes are cutting back on dining out, but embracing on-demand food-delivery services instead (take-out, as a treat, at home).


Desperate times call for desperate measures, and necessity once again proves to be the mother of invention. There are interesting shifts in restaurant trends, showing that restaurateurs are reinventing and rethinking traditional business templates: reinventing the function of their physical spaces, as well as rethinking their trading hours, and the results are ingenious.

Some restaurants in the US have noted the growth of the gig economy, as well as the rise of transient work spaces, catering to nomadic workers. To capitalise on their real estate, these restaurants now offer their premises as transient office spaces when they’re not serving meals, and then resume operating as a restaurant for lunch and dinner service. Dual function, double income: it’s a clever twist.

However, restaurateurs have also come up with clever concepts that tug at the heartstrings: unique experiences that create great stories.

The Enoteca Maria restaurant in Staten Island, New York, promises food “just like grandma used to make it”, and they mean it. Literally. The restaurant’s kitchen is staffed by “nonnas” (grandmothers) instead of professional chefs. The concept started with Italian grannies, but last year, they introduced nonnas from different countries to vary the menu. So now, each week, you can enjoy grandma’s cooking from countries such as Nigeria, Algeria, Syria, Poland, Liberia, Argentina and the Dominican Republic.

Tapping into the political zeitgeist, Eat off Beat is an on-demand food start-up in New York City, which also offers cuisine from different countries. Their innovative approach is hiring refugees who have resettled in the US as chefs. The only requirement for the job is to be passionate about cooking, even if it’s only cooking for their families.

To tackle the issue of inequality, the award for the most innovative, and philanthropic, restaurant concept must go to the Robin Hood Restaurant in Madrid, which opened in December last year. The restaurant, run by an 80-year-old Catholic priest, has a unique business model: it uses its breakfast and lunch takings from paying customers to fund free evening meals for the homeless. The restaurant is fully booked five months in advance, and the kitchen staff come from luxury hotels, with celebrity chefs vying to volunteer their services.

All of these restaurants have reinvented a traditional business template. I dislike the overworked phrase “think out of the box”. This is not what they have done.

They’ve reimagined the entire package.

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit

Join him on Metro FM tomorrow at 6.30am on the First Avenue show

Read more on:    johannesburg


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