Food fuels Canberra's booming night-time economy

Foodies are fuelling Canberra's $3.2 billion night-time economy, with more than 300 new restaurants and cafes opening over the last eight years.

Turnover in Canberra's restaurants and cafes has grown by 40 per cent since 2009 to hit nearly $2 billion last year, according to a tool created to measure Australian night-time economies.

Akiba owner Pete Harrington has three venues in Canberra, and is part of a hospitality industry that is currently booming.

Photo: Lawrence Atkin

The tool was commissioned by the Council of Capital City Lord Mayors, which will meet in Canberra this week.

According to the metric, the ACT's night-time economy has grown by $830 million since 2009, $572 million of which came from the food sector.

Food establishments now make up 69 per cent of the ACT's total night-time economy, up from 62 per cent in 2009.

There are nearly 330 more food establishments now than there were eight years ago (872 in 2009 versus 1201 in 2017), while the number of drink and entertainment venues has remained steady.

There are also nearly 30,000 people employed in the night-time economy - up from around 24,000 in 2009 - with around 21,000 jobs in the food sector.

Canberra recorded some of the strongest growth in its night-time economy in the nation between 2016 and 2017, with an increase in turnover of 5.1 per cent, employment of 6.1 per cent and number of establishments by 4 per cent.

Ten new bars opened in that period, bringing the number of drinks venues to 110, above 2009 levels.

The ACT's night-time economy also fared well when compared to other jurisdictions of about the same size.

It was 20 per cent higher than Tasmania's ($2.6 billion) and more than double that of Newcastle city's ($1.4 billion).

It was close behind the Melbourne CBD ($3.22 billion) and the Sydney CBD ($4 billion), although the figures are not directly comparable as the ACT data takes in the whole territory, not just the Canberra CBD.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the growth could be attributed to his government's measures to cut red tape, including dropping liquor licence fees by 25 per cent for small restaurants and cafes, and discounting fees for outdoor dining permit holders.

However restaurateurs say consumer preference is also driving the boom.

Greg Lally, who opened XO in Narrabundah in October 2015, said there was a lot more variety in Canberra's restaurant scene these days.

Greg Lally of XO and Morning Glory (second from the right) with his team. Mr Lally says the experience of dining out has changed in Canberra.

Photo: Lawrence Aitkin

"There are still some great fine dining restaurants in Canberra, like Aubergine for example, and there's a place for restaurants like that in any city," he said.

"But what we've found in Canberra is that people are sometimes looking for a more relaxed, casual experience, somewhere where it's not stressful and disciplined like work environments can be."

Mr Lally - who's also recently opened a new daytime only restaurant called Morning Glory in New Acton to try and make daylight dining more of a quality affair - said the experience of dining out has changed.

"People often think they are coming for the food," Mr Lally said.

"In part is true but they're coming for the whole experience and there are plenty of great restaurants in Canberra that give you that."

Peter Harrington, who co-owns Akiba, Kokomos and Sage, said he didn’t see the growth in Canberra’s food sector slowing down any time soon.

“Akiba does 3500 covers a week, Kokomos - which we opened 15 months ago across the road from Akiba - does 2000 a week and Sage does 500, and that’s increasing year on year,” Mr Harrington said.

“I think the condensation around Bunda Street is giving people a lot of options and is creating a vibrancy in the area. The urban sprawl was why the restaurant and bar scene didn’t see Canberra as a viable option but the condensation is creating a CBD vibe.”

Mr Harrington said the smaller size of the Canberra scene made it easier for new restaurateurs to set up shop.

“I think Canberra gives upcoming young entrepreneurs the ability to have go in a city where they can be a big fish in a small pond, there’s so much competition in other cities, it can be hard to get up and have a go,” Mr Harrington said.

“Canberra is an opportunity for entrepreneurial people with vision and drive to make a go of things.”

And while people seem to call it a night earlier than they did a decade ago, Mr Harrington said they also headed out more often.

“What used to happen is people would eat at home, or in a restaurant if it was a special occasion and then head out into town,” Mr Harrington said.

“Now people are inclined to eat out more often and explore. People like places now where they can eat, drink and kick on a bit longer.”

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