What's the true state of the nation? Ask a restaurateur

Eamonn Duff


Luke Mangan is preparing for his biggest day of the year. 

But while the celebrity chef can regularly forecast the size of a customer stampede, there are other peaks - and troughs - that catch even the most experienced restaurateurs off guard.

According to new figures compiled for Fairfax by on-line booking website Dimmi, there is a direct alignment between dining habits and events, big and small, that shape consumer confidence.

Celebrity chef: Luke Mangan at Glass at the Hilton.
Celebrity chef: Luke Mangan at Glass at the Hilton. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

"Melbourne Cup is, perhaps surprisingly, our biggest day of the year in Sydney, outshining both Mother's Day and Christmas Day," said Mangan, who cited elections, terrorism-related incidents and even daylight saving as having either a "conscious or subconscious" effect on the public's decision to eat in or out.

"Some trends you instinctively see coming. But occasionally things do happen ... and you can't fathom why," he said.

It is often said taxi drivers are the barometer of public sentiment. Latest statistics indicate restaurateurs are perhaps even more so. 

Dimmi chief executive Stevan Premutico said: "If we are feeling good about life, we eat out. If we are feeling nervous about things, we hold onto our wallets and eat at home instead."

In the week leading up to last September's election, restaurant bookings plummeted nationally by almost 23 per cent but rose and stabilised after the Abbott government was sworn in. "An election traditionally triggers a sense of anxiety that is felt across restaurants," Mangan said. "The corporates become edgy and business lunches tend to drop off due to general uncertainty."

It was a similar story in the week before the federal budget with Dimmi bookings having dipped by 23 per cent. When the US government shut down in September last year, it wasn't just global investors who were left feeling uneasy - with the domestic restaurant trade witnessing an 8.7 per cent drop in reservations. 

Even darker evenings and a looming winter can affect our eating behaviour with reservations having dropped by 5.4 per cent in the week that NSW wound its clocks back, in April this year. 

Judy McMahon, owner of Catalina at Rose Bay, confirmed that aside from Christmas Day, Melbourne Cup remained her "wall to wall" day of the calendar. However, she pointed to other sporting events that trigger the opposite response. "You can shoot a gun through most restaurants on State of Origin nights," she said.

When it comes to the celebratory dates on which we traditionally treat loved ones to a meal out, mums receive almost double the love (40 per cent increase) on Mother's Day than dads (22.5 per cent) do on Father's Day. While Valentine's Day pulled the largest single spike in bookings over the previous 12 months, it is far from being a favourite among restaurant owners. Mr Mangan said that while February 14 is a guaranteed restaurant filler, it is significantly less profitable because of a sitting that consists entirely of couples "gazing or arguing. One or the other".

"It's an absolute nightmare," agreed Mrs McMahon.

"You have this plethora of twos and financially, you've got to find a way to make it work. I'd much rather someone book a wedding on the night so I don't have to worry about it." 

But Mr Premutico said while Melbourne Cup might be huge for the "fine dining minority", it did not have the same impact on the local Italian and "across the board", nationally.