Recently there’s been quite a bit of controversy around the humble dessert, specifically those served by Brisbane’s dessert dining stalwart Freestyle Tout.
I first heard about it when this link from the Courier Mail popped up in my newsfeed on Facebook.
Cut a long story short it was an article about Martin Duncan, owner of Freestyle Tout, and his recent decision to insist that guests during peak times order a meal and a drink.
The initial response was scathing, so much so that the story was picked up online publishing behemoth Mashable
Cue social media melt-down, the result of which is that no one is ever, EVERRRR going to Freestyle Tout again!
But then something happened. The tide of outrage began to turn, and the comments on both Freestyle’s Facebook page AND on the Mashable article started to be decidedly in Duncan’s favour.
It was especially interesting to see the comments on Mashable from the American perspective. Their restaurant industry is so dependent on tips that the very thought of sharing meals or ordering tap water had them seeing red…
After the hoo-haa died down the result was pretty even. Certainly not a definitive loss to Freestyle, nor was it a resounding win for outraged consumers.
But although there are valid arguments to both sides of this story here’s why I think Freestyle made the wrong call…
Firstly lets be clear – it takes balls to open a restaurant. Hospitality has one of the highest burn out rates of any industry and we’ve all seen restaurants open with great fanfare only to fold quietly within just a few months.
It’s a tough, tough gig. So to keep TWO restaurants in business for 18 years, as Martin Duncan has done, is a feat worthy of respect.
But there in lies Freestyle’s two big problems
The thing about complacency is that it’s the by-product of business success. When things aren’t going well you have to be open to change and willing to accept that what you’re doing may not be what right for the market.
But when things ARE going well there’s no drive to innovate – because there’s no reason to innovate. Hey, if it aint broke right?
Freestyle is a classic example. It has been very successful for a very long time. So long in fact that it probably feels like its immune to trends and changes in consumer tastes.
This was borne out by comments by a few of my friends when I shared the link on my Facebook page. Even the one who considered herself to be a Freestyle fan conceded that they hadn’t changed the menu since she was a teenager (apart from adding a few gluten free / low sugar options which is hardly innovation).
But the problem is that Freestyle can’t really afford to be complacent because of it’s other big problem…
When Freestyle opened in 1996 the Brisbane dining scene was a markedly different place than the one we enjoy today.
By making desserts the hero of their menu Freestyle managed to carve out a unique position for themselves which helped them stand out easily from the crowd.
But things have changed. First came the dessert based franchises like Max Brenner, Chocolateria San Churro and Theobroma. Hot on their heels came a myriad of dessert restaurants, gelatarias, waffle joints… you get the picture.
So the competition has picked up but its not only that. Trends have come along that challenge the standard dining experience. Share plates and the whole concept of sharing food is on the rise and smart restaurants are catering to that.
And this is why I believe that Freestyle has made the wrong call.
Instead of seeing the problem as an opportunity to challenge themselves and innovate they’ve made the choice to cling for dear life to “the way things have always been”.
It’s a strategy that may reap short term gains but ultimately by choosing to stand still and ignore shifts in customer dining tastes they leave themselves exposed to the new kids on the block.
Competitors like Cowch who embrace shared dining and have structured their menu accordingly. Competitors who have with fresh ideas and their finger on the pulse of Brisbane’s dining scene.