Melbourne cafes eating themselves

A recent article in food and art culture bible Broadsheet ponders a serious question for the Melbourne café scene. Despite being so successful that copycat offerings are popping up in capital cities around the world – is the sector out of ideas?

As the Melbourne café market approaches saturation, operators are facing steeper establishment and running costs that are making it tougher to take risks. With social media a key marketing tool these days, new cafés are upping the ante on fit-outs that are Instagram-able and attract enough food bloggers to create some hype. While these social media channels are free, increasingly they don’t come cheap! Broadsheet admits it is part of the problem, profiling new cafes with the sort of high-quality imagery that cries out for arresting and appealing light-filled interiors.

The standard of food offerings in Melbourne cafés has also lifted across the board, as highly qualified chefs seeking family-friendly hours offer up restaurant-quality dishes. Great for punters, but for operators, the traditional model of 30% of revenue on fixed overheads such as rent, utilities, equipment and repaying debt; 30% on food; and 30% on wages leaving a 10% margin for profit; is much harder to achieve.

The success of the sector has been driven in large part by the passion of individual operators who have understood the local demographic and the role cafés can play in a community. In turn local communities have repaid them by being supportive and open to new ideas. These days Melbourne diners have exacting standards, plenty of options and limited tolerance for price increases, slow service or sub-standard coffees. Social media also allows for scathing reviews over sometimes petty issues that could potentially ruin a fledgling business that represents a huge personal investment from an owner-operator.

Now cafes have to look amazing, offer quick service day-in-day out and be cheap or perish. Given all the boxes café’s must tick, it’s little wonder that operators are increasingly playing it safe – sticking to Scandi-influenced interiors, food that makes the grade on Instagram or menus that are full of safe staples rather than pushing culinary boundaries.

Maybe Melbourne has had it too good for too long. Travel to major cities like London, New York or even Paris and the café scene is dominated by look-a-like chains or traditional offerings that seem designed for tourists rather than local foodies. That’s exactly why Melbourne-style cafes are having such an impact in markets  that are craving something new.

If Melbourne diners want to remain at the forefront of innovation – and keep the edge over Sydney – they will need to be supportive of operators that take risks and push the boundaries. Otherwise there will just be more of the same.