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March 13, 2024

Make or Break

A+ speaks to hospo industry experts about the decisions that will most affect the success of your business in 2024.

Words: Nick Jumara, Besha Rodell
Images: Sean Fennessy

Running a successful hospitality venue is like keeping 4,000 balls in the air all at once. Staffing! Inventory! Marketing! That one line cook who is so sweet but keeps showing up 45 minutes late! (Cut him loose; the lesson will do him good in the long run.)  

It’s hard to think about the future when the present is so overwhelming. And yet, being forward-thinking is one of the most important factors in conceiving of and continuously running a successful business. 

At the beginning of 2024, we thought it would be helpful to speak to several leading industry experts on the make-or-break trends, strategies and considerations as they relate to four key areas of the business: design, service, programming, and product. The following interviews were integral to shaping the A+ 2024 Trend Report, an in-depth and heavily researched project covering the current state of the industry, which we'll be launching in the coming months.  

We also asked Sean Fennessy, an artist who works with AI, to imagine an archetypal restaurant that gets all four elements of these key areas right. The result is a bit like if The Menu met an especially slick Qantas commercial; we’ve created a narrative around the images that plays out in their captions – Uncanny Valley, the restaurant of your dreams and nightmares. 

We hope the following will help you see the future of the business while you keep all those other balls in the air (and while you find a replacement line cook). 

Welcome to Uncanny Valley, a restaurant by acclaimed chef Bjorn Dystopia. We aim to allow the natural and unnatural worlds to collide in your consciousness and on your plate. 


The Melbourne-based hospo group Sandhill Road specialises in revamping neighbourhood pubs and turning them into destinations. Now owned by Australian Venue Co., Sandhill Road is known for bringing striking design to their projects, including the iconic Espy hotel in Saint Kilda, and Garden State in the CBD. Sandhill Road co-founder Matt Mullins tells us that while design won’t make a venue succeed alone, it can certainly be catastrophic if done poorly. “If you get design wrong, it can be disastrous for a venue,” he says. “If you get everything else right and design wrong, you should still be ok. But if you rely only on design and you got that wrong, it’s all over.”

Mullins emphasises attaching design to the narrative of the business, and bringing in a stylist or designer very early in the build to help tell that story, rather than at the end of a project.

“Start by describing the overarching story, the idea,” he says. “I’m convinced that’s the single most important thing to get right from the beginning. It’s tempting to move on quickly from this and hire architects and say, ‘let’s see what you got.’ But it’s so hard to succeed without a strong vision that every component can fit and respond to.”

“If you get design wrong, it can be disastrous for a venue.”

A lot of people see design in the opposite direction, he says, bringing in someone to “have stylists hang paintings and add a plant” once everything else is in place. But design is about so much more than the room colour or accessories – it can (and should) affect the flow of the room, the functionality of the space, the ways in which you want different kinds of customers to interact with the business.

This kind of advice can be hard to put into action – what does Mullins mean when he says “the overarching story” of a venue?

He uses Italian restaurant Tippy-Tay in the Garden State hotel as an example. “We believed that [post lockdown] we were all desperately missing and seeking the chance to be somewhere else in time and place. Our story was to create a venue of magnificent sun filled celebration on the Mediterranean coast of Italy in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s. That was the overarching narrative, and everything we did had to respond to that. From the chef designing the menu, the sommelier with wine, the bartender with glassware. Everything was in pursuit of that story.”

The narrative of Tippy-Tay touches on one of the biggest design trends of moment: nostalgia. We asked Mullins if he thinks this retrophilia will continue to be an important aesthetic in coming years. “The retro thing was such a natural response to the desire to find layered, patinaed environment,” he says. “It just made so much sense to make spaces that feel lived in and aged. That’s definitely not done with. There are really only two strong dominant aesthetics: Aged worn lived in vintage, and clean fresh bright and new. There are hundreds of possibilities in that.” 

Our style of welcome is intentionally unsettling. We have created the too-perfect experience, such that dining is forever changed in your psyche. 


What is “product”? It’s everything we do. Everything we sell, everything we offer. But in this era of rapid upheaval, the product that is hospitality is fluctuating, too. Secondary income streams are now seen as vital for many F&B businesses. The drive to offer more is more important than ever: Restaurants are now in the business of RTDs; Seven Rooms now offers ad-on signature experiences and drinks at the time of online bookings; Restaurant t-shirts are the new band t-shirts; more bottle shops are morphing into bars, while more bars are fleshing out their off-premise sales options.

Clarity of vision is a theme that was emphasised by many of the experts we spoke to, including Georgia Moore, Editor-in-Chief of the West Australian Good Food Guide. She says that for any venue, from the most extravagant to the humblest, having a clear vision of what you want to be and achieve is the key to success. In terms of product – the actual thing that you’re selling – that means striving to be as good as you possibly can be within the confines of your concept.

A good example is this explosion of sandwich culture in Australia,” she says. “People might say, ‘a sandwich shop is just a sandwich shop,’ but when someone's going to get fresh calamari off the boat that morning and then put it between freshly baked white bread at lunchtime, it can be as elevated and as exciting a concept as fine dining.”

“If you’ve got a product that’s iconic, that can be bottled and can be sold, why not?”

The sandwich example illustrates one of the most important trends in hospitality, which is a move towards high quality in more affordable – and even fast casual – offerings. Moore says that there’s still a place for fine dining, and the restaurants that are in trouble are the ones falling in the middle and relying on the old notion of fanciness to save them. “The venues that are really struggling are ones that aren’t delivering exceptional service and everything is somewhat mediocre, but you're still paying $42 for a bit of salmon.

Diversification of product is another thing Moore points to as having the potential to add that extra infusion of income that might be the difference between a venue reaching profitability or not. “If you’ve got a product that's iconic, that can be bottled and can be sold, why not?” she says. “I love seeing people go to Old Young's, for instance, in the Swan Valley, and they eat this incredible meal of Western Australian native ingredients, and then they leave with that the same ingredients they've had at lunch in a bottle of gin.”

Is it a meal or an art project? Elaborate theatre? A fever dream? 


For Chris Handel, General Manager at Andrew McConnel’s Trader House restaurants, there’s no doubt that service can make or break a venue. “I'd say that the service element for us is over 50% of the overall experience,” Handel says. “And when I say service, it's not just the front of house. It's the food service as well obviously, how things are produced and handled and therefore delivered.”

Human interaction is at the core of the Trader House service ethos, but Handel thinks of service as all interactions between a company representative and a customer. “Whether it's via email correspondence, or phone, or even through marketing, it's still a human being that's generating that.” Handel says that while streamlining marketing and communication with customers can be great for productivity, it’s the small human touches that guests remember.

“You’re only as strong as the people representing you day in, day out.”

Treating staff well, and giving them agency, is a key factor in striving for better service outcomes. “The staff are engaged with what they're doing,” Handel says. “It's not purely transactional. They are representative of the business and they're proud. You can always tell when someone's proud of what they're doing.

“You have to invest in and nurture talent,” he says. “You're only as strong as the people representing you day in day out.”

Our food is not cooked, our decor is not made. We have willed these elements into being by the beauty of our minds. 


It used to be enough: Open a bar. Open a restaurant. Buy a beloved pub and slap on a new coat of paint. Maybe offer a trivia night, or occasional live music.

Then came Sydney’s strict nightlife lockout laws. Then came Covid. The locals were stuck in lockdown; the tourists were gone. In the aftermath of all we’ve gone through in recent years, operators are finding out the hard way that what used to be enough is no longer cutting it. Innovation, and offering punters an experience they can’t get elsewhere, is more important than ever. Pop-ups, take-overs and mini-festivals are showcasing what can be done when like-minded people and businesses collaborate.

The good news? Creativity is being rewarded. But the new conundrum is that what used to be enough is now the bare minimum.

“Often it comes down to: we want this many people in the room at this time, spending this much.”

Hayley Percy, head of music for RISING, a festival of music, food and culture, has spent her career focusing on programming for venues and festivals. She stresses that a clean model is vital for success. “How many nights do you want to activate your venue? Who’s the core audience? What suits your license? Resolving these questions will help structure your budget. Often it comes down to: we want this many people in the room at this time, spending this much.”

While live music and DJs are the obvious, time-tested model for F&B programming, there are plenty of other ways to get bums in seats, as long as you keep your customer base in mind. Trivia nights, comedy shows, special tasting events, chef take-overs, all have their place in the ecosystem of hospitality programming. “Programming for any venue can be very adventurous,” Percy says. “If you have enough capital and you’re willing to take the risk, you can get away with pretty much anything in any space.” 

So, can programming make or break a business? “I think yes, definitely it can,” Percy says. Great programming creates brand loyalty amongst punters, especially if you know exactly who your audience is or who you want them to be, and curate programming for that audience. “And then, even when bands aren't playing, it's still seen as a hot hangout spot where people will go with their mates. People will come to the pub and trust that they're not going to be punished, because there’s someone there who's putting time and energy to really build up that programming brand.”

We are multifaceted. We are everything and nothing simultaneously. We are Uncanny Valley. Join us. 

Besha Rodell is the Editor-in-Chief of A+, as well as the chief restaurant critic for The Age and Good Weekend magazine. Born and raised in Australia, she was a restaurant critic in the USA for over a decade – in Atlanta and Los Angeles – before returning to her hometown of Melbourne in 2017 to write for the New York Times. Follow her on X and Instagram.

Nick Jumara heads up A+ Advisory and is a Creative Strategist at Right Angle, using his background in design and communications to develop clarity, align stakeholders and embed value in projects. Applying focused research to build creative strategies that make good business sense, Nick guides the thinking to define uniquely human insights at every step while bringing future possibilities into focus to deliver real and lasting outcomes.

Sean Fennessy is an Australian photographer based in Melbourne but with strong ties to his home state of Tasmania. His fresh, minimal style and unique sense of observation has seen his work published internationally.

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