With four flagship dining establishments announcing their demise in the last two weeks, is it any wonder that people in the restaurant business are getting the jitters?

First, it was Mark Best announcing the closure of Marque after 17 years.  Then, in close succession, we heard about Neil Perry’s Rockpool shutting up shop along with one of Melbourne’s most influential chef and restaurateurs, Andrew McConnell closing his bespoke Moon Under Water restaurant.  Now we hear the two hatted MoVida in Surry Hills, Sydney is also planning to serve up its last plates at the end of this month.

Understandably, the question on everyone’s lips is why especially when you take into account the calibre of the chefs involved and the success that all these restaurants have enjoyed.  If they can’t make it, what chance does your restaurant have?

However, it’s not as if any of them are walking away from the restaurant business, but all acknowledge the business is changing, and like true leaders, they need to change with it.

Mark Best made the decision to close his much lauded 3 hatted Marque Restaurant in Sydney’s Surry Hills saying it was the right time to change. He will still be involved in the Pei Modern restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne and will continue to consult.

Neil Perry’s Rockpool, which has accumulated 66 chef hats since opening its doors 27 years ago, is set to close its doors for good on July 30.  He plans to reopen the space just nine days later as a more casual, relaxed a la carte dining experience, which will be renamed Eleven Bridge.

“After much consideration and conversation, we have decided to move away from the traditional concept of fine dining, but still maintaining all the elements that are crucial to great dining; excellent produce and service, and a contemporary style.”

Down in Melbourne, Andrew Connell is killing off his Moon Under Water restaurant, and its sibling bistro at The Builders Arms in Fitzroy, to launch his first pure Chinese restaurant, Ricky & Pinky, named after a tattoo parlour in Wanchai.

“It’s been a great four years, but it’s time for a change. There’s a lot of pubs now doing what we were doing with the Builders four years ago.”

The last one to bite the dust is Frank Camorra’s MoVida restaurant, also in Sydney’s Surry Hills.    “It’s simple – it’s not busy enough,” says owner and chef Camorra. “The first couple of years, it was very different. Then it sort of quietened down.”

So what change are they all talking about?  It seems that the market for lengthy, high priced multi-course degustation dinners, accompanied by fine wines may have contracted in this thriftier era.

People are still eating out, and in fact, they are eating out more often, but the average spend has fallen.  Basically, they’re blowing the same amount of their income on dining out, but wanting more “bang for their buck”  and not patronising those big, set-piece degustation dinners nearly as much as before.  As Neil Perry said, referring to his Burger Project, “there’s a much bigger market for an $8.50 burger than Rockpool’s $150 four-course menu.”

The competition is also fierce.  Business Insider quoted Chef Alex Herbert calculating that greater Sydney had around 23,000 food businesses in an area where nearly 20% of the population is under 14 and the median age is 36.  That equates to one F&B business to every 201 people where the median age and number of children has a high representation of family groups who are not your regular restaurant goers.

The industry’s peak body, the Restaurant & Catering Association, told the Productivity Commission last year that the average net profit for its 35,000 members was just 3.6%. And that’s an improvement on recent years.

It’s a very tough business and you simply can’t persist pushing the wrong product to the wrong market.  If it’s wrong, fix it, and you need to keep on fixing and changing it as the market changes.

But it’s not all doom and gloom in the Sydney restaurant scene. One outfit who know their market extremely well and who are continually changing and evolving are the team from Porteño. Less than 24 hours after Frank Camorra’s announcement, Porteno co-owners Elvis Abrahanowicz, Ben Milgate and Joe Valore, revealed plans to take over the MoVida site, relocating their award winning Argentinian grill restaurant to Holt Street and turning their current Cleveland Street site into an events space.

They also run or have interests in a string of disparate dining projects, all carefully aimed at the casual dining markets, including the original Bodega Restaurant; Mary’s in Newtown & CBD, Stambuli in Enmore and their most recent project the Continental Deli and Bistro in Newtown. They also specialise in imported Malbec wines from their vineyard in Argentina.

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Images:  Feature image Neil Perry . Above left to right: Porteno crew Ben Milgate, Sarah Doyle, Elvis Abrahanowicz and Joe Valore.