BRINGING THEM IN: Promotions, like Austin & Co's Hot Wing Challenge, are ways of attracting more customers for your restaurant. Chef Nathan Earp with Thursday's chicken wing challenge contestants Bill North, left, and Matt Elkerton.
BRINGING THEM IN: Promotions, like Austin & Co's Hot Wing Challenge, are ways of attracting more customers for your restaurant. Chef Nathan Earp with Thursday's chicken wing challenge contestants Bill North, left, and Matt Elkerton. Tim Howard

Rollercoaster ride on dining scene

YOU push back your plate, saying this is the best restaurant meal you've had in Grafton, others at the table enthusiastically agree, then you look around to find you are the only ones in the dining room.

Why is it so?

A week or so later, some friends invited us to a restaurant they found in South Grafton last year, operating out of a pub.

We turned up to find the "nice little Italian" had closed and there was a list of pub food topped by a dish of "battered bangers and mash".

Not surprisingly we were the only ones in the dining room. Thankfully the staff made us welcome and a couple of surprising finds on the wine list helped make the night very pleasant indeed.

Then we noticed this entry in The Daily Examiner's Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down:

"Paul Dwyer: Thumbs up to the meals and wonderful staff at Teppanmate. Always exceptional. Another wonderful lunch with my wife today. Thumbs down to the unsupportive people in Grafton (we were the only people there) who continue to eat 'junk' KFC and Maccas when this great food is available."

What's going wrong? Is there a reluctance to eat out in Grafton, as the Thumbs Down comment suggests? Or are some restaurants failing to read the market?

Grafton restaurateurs Mark and Judy Hackett have 20 years' experience in Grafton and know from experience it can be a tough gig.

The couple have owned and operated their Georgie's restaurant at the Village Green Hotel and then from the Grafton Regional Gallery before setting up their cafe/restaurant Toast Espresso in Prince St.

"You just can't open your door and expect the customers to come," Judy said.

She said Toast opens for dinner once a month and last Friday it was packed with 70 people.

"To get that number of people in we had to go to the database, put up signs on our wall, get onto Facebook, talk to people," she said.

"Even then, they don't come all the time."

For the owner/chef at Austin & Co in Grafton, Nathan Earp, a complete change of direction in the menu was one answer.

"We changed from fine dining to US-style gastro pub food," he said.

He said this change might cut them off from 40 or 50 customers, but opens their eatery up to 200 or 300 more potential diners.

Nathan said the restaurant had instituted promotions, like its hot wing challenge, to change the eating out dynamic.

"We wanted it to be more family oriented and fun. People can bring a blanket and have their dinner on the lawn by the river if they like," he said.

Even so, he described the dining out scene in Grafton as a ride on a "rollercoaster".

"One day you can have 30 people in, then next day there's hardly anyone," he said.



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