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The Empty Room

The Empty Room


For those who have worked in property for some time, you tend to develop a productivity barometer when it comes to space. You are always looking for ways to optimise the productivity of that valuable commodity.

It’s funny how some of those tendencies can extend beyond the workplace and into our personal life. This made me realise that many of us are living with what I would call The Empty Room.

The Empty Room was once far from empty and was once the epicentre of family conversation each night and a roast dinner every Sunday. But the dining room now lies dormant, like the snowfields in summer.

Why is it that few people use formal dining rooms anymore?

I believe it is no co-incidence that the demise of the dining room has occurred at the same time that dining offers have expanded rapidly in our local shopping precincts.

Not so long ago, if you wanted to get take-away for dinner, you had the choice of the local fish’n chip and pizza shop, McDonalds or the local Chinese restaurant. You would then feel guilty and want to jump on the exercise bike for half an hour afterwards.

Nowadays the world has come to us. The variety has improved and take-away isn’t always associated with junk-food.

Chinese now sits aside Asian fusion, Japanese, Korean BBQ, noodles, Mexican, Italian, gourmet burgers, Portuguese chicken, Thai and so much more.

The local Thai restaurant where I get take-away is the frequent haunt of half a dozen young ladies who have their “book club” there each week. They migrated from the dining room table to the restaurant (although in the 10 minutes I wait for take-away, I don’t hear too much discussion about the book).

Is this improved offering causing the demise of in-house dining? Or is the improved offering a consequence of people looking for alternatives? I’d suggest a bit of both.

In a world where time is so precious I believe the biggest driver of this trend is convenience. By going to the local shopping precinct, where you now have an abundance of restaurant choices, you are not just outlaying $20.00 for sesame beef on rice.

You are outsourcing the cooking, outsourcing the food preparation, outsourcing the cleaning up of the kitchen, outsourcing the dealing with food scraps etc, and all for $20.00. Now all of a sudden that seems like a bargain and that’s even without enjoying the social ambience that comes with dining out.

The impact of this outsourcing has had a profound effect on shopping precincts. According to recent Urbis data, the number of cafes and restaurants in a typical regional shopping centre has increased by 300 per cent over the past 20 years. Cafés, restaurants and takeaway food now represent around 13 per cent of an average regional shopping centre’s space.

When everyone feared that malls would be decimated by a reduction in apparel retailers from the growth of online shopping, food retail has very quickly filled any gaps.

We have seen the rise of gourmet burgers through Neil Perry’s Burger Project and the very successful Grill’d Burger chain. Grill’d founder Simon Crowe jumped off a rising corporate ladder to pursue a vision in a market that he believed was undercatered for – and his entrepreneurial instinct has served him well.

Previously a chicken parma was synonymous with the local pub. Nowadays, Schnitz are serving thousands of schnitzels every week to local shoppers and there are new concepts opening up every day.

Food essentially sits along breathing and water as one of Maslow’s primary needs. We have always needed to eat, but it is the choice of food is what has changed dramatically.

Today, the once popular lunch of a white bread sandwich with vegemite has been usurped by enormous variety. The kids growing up today are doing so with different expectations, spoilt by choice. When I was growing up it was steamed dim-sims but these days it’s a variety of dumplings.

A few years back if you wanted a coffee you had a choice of black or white, with or without sugar. If you ordered a coffee like that now, you would be looked at with a blank face saying, “Can you be more specific please”.

There is no doubt the rise of casual dining has made shopping precincts become more than places for just shopping. Whilst for many visits shopping may not be the objective, it invariably becomes the outcome. My wife would regularly pop up the local shops for a “bite to eat” with her sister and come back with an arm full of shopping bags of impulse unintended purchases.

One thing is for sure though; we will continue to see the rise of dining options in our shopping precincts. It will be strengthened further by the increase of mixed-use developments, which will see residential properties merging with retail precincts.

My guess is that these places will be built without a formal dining room as the space is too valuable. It is for this reason we converted our own dining room into a study and the study into an additional bedroom.

Dean Arnel Head of Asset Management – Retail...