INSIGHT BY: GRANT ARMSTRONG
In a high-turnaround, fast-changing environment like hospitality, it’s easy to lose sight of just how far Kiwi restaurants have come in recent decades. As Ignite looks back on 30 years of hospitality architecture since it began designing Georgie Pie restaurants in the late 1980s, it’s clear there’s been a total evolution in how our cafés and restaurants are imagined. Over the years we’ve gone from large-format dining into more personalised, wildly diverse spaces that provide great opportunities for hospitality operators and designers alike. While food has always been the one binding ingredient in all our social interactions, our expectations of where – and how – we eat together have transformed, making the streets our dining room and placing the restaurateur centre-stage.
Back in the early Georgie Pie era, the key driver of customer trust was uniformity. In the 1990s, the general approach was large dining spaces that followed a more mass-market model, ensuring every diner had the same experience, but regarding the actual preparation of the food as secondary. Chefs were usually concealed in the kitchen, and the ingredients and methods they used remained behind the swinging doors.
Now food as theatre has become the standard. Since the arrival of cooking shows like My Kitchen Rules and Masterchef, efficiency alone no longer satisfies the average diner. As the customer appetite for dining out increases, customers want to feel more involved with how their food is prepared. Kiwis are more curious to know where the ingredients have come from, wanting to see and smell and experience the processes of smoking, cutting and cooking, and to personally engage with the owner. While we still expect the convenience of fast food, we expect to feel special too, hence the transformation from mere fast food outlets to “fast casual”, where the dining environment is just as important as getting the food quickly.
This demand for a real experience translates into hospitality designs that emphasise authenticity and a “fresh and natural” ethos. As well as open kitchens where you can watch your meal being prepared, plants have now been brought indoors much more than before, and whereas 15 years ago a fine-dining establishment would have been fitted out using solely high-spec materials, you’ll now see a juxtaposition of luxe and rustic elements. The award-winning Emerson’s Taproom at Emerson’s Brewery in Dunedin allows patrons to watch beer being brewed and bottled from the comfort of their seats, created from reclaimed railway sleepers beneath a chandelier incorporating old saw blades. Rails embedded in the floor are a nod to the site’s former use as a railway yard. Likewise the Little Creatures dine-in brewery opening in a former aircraft hangar at Hobsonville Point in November will allow customers to see the process before they taste.
Previously the emphasis was on creating an entirely enclosed environment, a fully-branded atmosphere that could be replicated anywhere. However, as restaurants have turned their kitchens inside out, the whole dining experience is being externalised too. Shopping malls are an excellent example, now turning internal food courts into attractive dining lanes along the once featureless and boxy exterior walls that give even non-shoppers a reason to visit and stay. In 2017 Middlemore Hospital also opened a dining “street”, Paataka Place, which allows visitors to engage with the world outside while they have lunch.
Outdoor dining used to consist of a few chairs hopefully placed on the footpath beneath an umbrella if one was lucky. There’s now been a shift, as seen also in the big Australian cities, towards creating pedestrianised “lanes” with tables spilling into the street, as in Ignite’s Oracle in the Gold Coast and Chancery precinct in Auckland. Flexible dining spaces give permanent indoor-outdoor flow suitable for all weather with clever use of heating or cooling. Moving on from the old kids’ zone with ball-pit in family restaurants, hospitality design increasingly reflects the need for outdoor areas to replace disappearing backyards, creating shared public spaces where everyone can interact. More than mere facades, restaurants and cafes are becoming central to placemaking in our towns and cities, creating buzzy streetscapes like the sort increasingly well-travelled Kiwis have experienced in Europe and Asia.
As we travel more, and our population becomes more multicultural, our tastes have matured and diversified, meaning there’s no longer a “Kiwi aesthetic” any more than there is one kind of Kiwi. Conversely, there’s become a tribal element to dining out. The idea of a mass market has disappeared. In the age of Pinterest and Facebook plate pics, where people eat has become an expression of their personality, resulting in places with smaller footprints that cater to distinct markets. Eateries that specialise only in South Vietnamese dumplings, designer bagels or ethical coffee are not just “an Auckland thing”, but have spread across all our cities. This is a real boon for designers as well as café owners. Smaller operators can get started with much less capital, and young designers have many more opportunities.
The challenge in future is to be smarter about our use of resources. While the bespoke trend is excellent, we need to be mindful of the need to reuse materials where possible, in spite of the transitional nature of hospitality. That means focusing on the whole life cycle of the fit-out – creating ‘plug and play’ kitchens that can be easily transported elsewhere, or allowing them to be easily modified to new fit-outs should a restaurant change hands. Technology is providing smart solutions to old problems, however. Increasingly we are likely to see centralised point of sale systems such as at Auckland Airport, where tablets allow guests to place an order that is then delivered to their table. This gives better opportunities for waiting staff to interact with customers than simply taking a rushed order over a counter – the personal approach once again.
While the clean, minimalist approach of the 90s is cycling back around again, the sheer diversity of today’s hospitality venues means Kiwis will never again witness the cookie-cutter spaces of the past. While our streets continue to be transformed into “places” thanks to clever outdoor dining design, so the world becomes our dining room even as our gardens shrink. The hospitality space has become a true reflection of who Kiwis are today, always social, more multicultural, more food-conscious and more individual than ever before. It is to be hoped, however, that there’ll always be a place for the humble pie.