Is survival of the finest still the name of the game for fine dining in Asia-Pacific? Delicately plated, multi-course culinary indulgences served over several hours seem at odds with the Asian trend of eating at double time, preferably over the office desk.
Yet Esther Lau, a research analyst at Mintel, believes that it is precisely Asian urbanites’ fast-paced lifestyle that gives fine dining an edge.
“Fine dining restaurants don’t have to push for the quicker meals or affordability,” Lau explains. “Instead, they can use the [trend] of consumers seeking luxury experience [to balance out] the stressful work days.”
Experience, after all, drives millennial-spending — the consumer group that may be pumping back some colour into fine dining’s peaky outlook. A recent survey by MasterCard in Asia-Pacific showed that one in three millennials aged 18 to 29 years old splurge on top-notch cuisines once a month, more so than those above 30 years old. China has the most avid fine-diners — on average making two to three visits a month.
Georgette Tan, MasterCard’s group head of communications in Asia-Pacific is not surprised at the finding. She cites research by YouBrand that puts the combined spending power of millennials worldwide at US$2.45 trillion in 2015. And they are more likely to prioritise spending on experiences such as travel and fine dining, she says.
This may come as a relief for premium restaurants. For the past few years, business has been slow in China. A report by the China Hotel Association showed that while upscale eateries recorded a 10-per-cent climb in the number of diners in 2014, the amount that they spent plunged by 20 per cent on average. All in all, revenue for high-end dining in China fell by 6 per cent. In contrast, hotpot and fast food sales soared 16 per cent and 11 per cent respectively.
In Singapore, the situation is also grim. The country’s Food Forward Trends Report 2014 by Weber Shandwick quoted Alex Linton, founder of lifestyle reviews and listing portal City Nomads: “There has been a definite shift away from fine dining restaurants as consumers look toward mid-range restaurants.”
Lau of Mintel, however, notes that there are gradual signs of recovery. The way forward is to harness the exclusive experiences that millennials find worth paying for.
Howard Lam, group director of Chinese cuisine at the Langham Hospitality Group, finds that the new generation of diners are well-travelled and love unique experiences. The group serves this preference by crafting special menus along with stalwart dishes.
A recent example is a six-course offering featuring “Chinese flavours cohesively blended with biodynamic wines from Slovenia’s Movia Winery that have been harvested according to the position of the planets”.
This tactic ticks several boxes with the target group. Lau’s recent survey of Chinese diners aged 20 to 49 showed that fusion dishes captured the most interest (35 per cent), while 33 per cent and 29 per cent are keen on more use of seasonal and organic ingredients. About 21 per cent want to attend food events or tasting sessions with a cultural spin.
“Cultural nights or food events to promote a specific dish would also entertain and justify the premium price,” suggests Lau.
Pampering without patronising is the key to staying relevant
Tan Su-Lyn, chief executive, The Ate Group
Overall, the sense is that diners are shying away from the spectacle of dining for quality, longevity and comfort. There was a time when diners felt that they had to be somehow good enough to enter a fine dining establishment, that there was a qualification process to be allowed in. Fine dining was intimidating. Today, diners seek restaurants that make efforts to understand them and make them feel more comfortable.
Part of this desire for comfort stems from already being well-versed in global dining trends. Many diners aren’t so much looking to be educated but are expecting to be indulged in the most sophisticated manner. Hence, it is crucial for restaurants to adapt in order to be able to please the local pool of diners without diluting its concept and culinary philosophy. This is particularly relevant if the restaurateur has an established brand and is entering a new market.
The challenge is in maintaining top-of-mind recall when you are no longer the hottest new restaurant in town. It means creating experiences that engage your diners and ideally generate buzz that will help you extend your market reach.
One of the best ways to achieve such success is through a credible source that you trust. Today, a trusted source has many faces. It can be a friend, an Instagrammer or blogger, a journalist, a chef at another restaurant in a different city or the line cook in your very own kitchen.
A fine dining business will need to build a multifaceted communications strategy to help amplify its message.