Why we soured on Sizzler as more close their doors
MORE than three decades after the first Sizzler restaurant opened in Australia two of the remaining few outlets will close this weekend.
The once-iconic buffet joint will shut its Brookside restaurant in Brisbane and another in Sydney's Kogarah this weekend, leaving just one left in NSW.
The company behind Sizzler insists it is not exiting Australia - or running down its premises in readiness for closure - but has admitted it is no longer investing in the group. At least not here, anyway.
Sizzler is going gangbusters in Asia, where diners apparently can't get enough of the Australian-owned, all-American chain.
What's undeniable is that if you're a fan of warm buffets, cold salad bars - and the 1990s in general - in Australia, there are fewer and fewer places to enjoy them here.
Sizzler restaurants in Carindale, Toowong and Bundaberg have all closed their doors in recent months, and by next week there will be just 16 Sizzlers left - 11 of those in the chain's Queensland heartland and just one in NSW, in Campbelltown.
Chase Watson, a retail worker from Mortdale in Sydney's south, recently dined at the soon-to-close Kogarah Sizzler. But he's not mourning its closure.
"The first time I went to Sizzler, I absolutely loved it," he tells news.com.au.
"The second time, the service got a bit slack and the third - and last time - it was just terrible.
"The pumpkin soup didn't taste like pumpkins, the Solo drink was watery and tasted nowhere near like Solo and I had the spaghetti bolognaise and there was hair in it.
"I didn't eat anything from there that day."
To the many similar complaints on social media, Sizzler has stated that it is "disappointed" that the service wasn't up to "our usual standard".
NOT EXCITING ENOUGH
University of Melbourne trends expert Dr Lauren Rosewarne said Australians had become "almost religious" about where they eat but the reason Sizzler had fallen out of favour was simple.
"We've become passionate - if not even evangelical - about provenance of ingredients and the cult-like status of celebrity culinary figures. Places like Sizzler have a diminishing role in such a landscape."
We wanted more excitement with our dinner, she said, and craved new initiatives like pop up restaurants and food trucks.
Francis Loughran, Managing Director of food consultancy firm Future Food, said Sizzler was a brand of its time and stuck in the past.
"Sizzler created friendly family restaurants that represented value for money, great service and easy parking.
"But the market changed and the customers who visit Sizzler is shrinking."
Mr Loughran said the family dining market was now far more competitive, with options unheard of in Sizzler's heyday. Gourmet burgers, spicy Vietnamese, posh schnitzels, healthy choices, pub food and even supermarket grab-and-go meals were all tempting people away.
Sizzler had become boring, he said, with customers suffering from never changing 'menu fatigue'.
One-time customer Mr Watson agreed. "It was looking cold, there wasn't much change about it and the food was always the same. I think buffet places are past their sell-by-date. Nowadays, I prefer Italian and Chinese restaurants."
A series of well publicised food safety scares have also hurt.
THE ROLE OF KFC
But perhaps the main reason Sizzler Australia is not looking so hot is because the chain's owner, Brisbane-based Collins Foods, has bigger fish - or rather chicken - to fry.
Collins' is one of KFC's key Australian franchises, owning hundreds of outlets. The firm's most recent half-year results show its KFC stores booking revenue of $250 million, with earnings up to $34 million. It's profit margin was a healthy 17 per cent.
In contrast, revenue at Sizzler was down 11 per cent on the previous half with earnings of just $2.7 million. Profit margins were far slimmer than KFC, at just 8.6 per cent. In 2015, the company wrote down the value of Sizzler by $37.5 million.
In its November investor presentation, Collins Foods was keen to point out that earnings were up at the chain and Australian sales were "better than expected".
Collins Foods told news.com.au while it had closed a "small number" of stores this year as leases ran out, "each closure was based on an independent assessment of that restaurant's performance and the ongoing suitability of the location."
Sizzler is owned by the same company that runs hundreds of KFC fast food outlets. KFC makes far more money than Sizzler.
"Collins Foods Limited remains committed to the Sizzler brand and has no plans to close the Sizzler chain," the company said. It was "actively supporting" the remaining stores and staff "who work hard to provide a fabulous and unique experience".
The company said "operational activity" - such as store maintenance - would continue. Yet, in November, the company reiterated that "no further growth capital has been invested," in Australian Sizzler stores.
While it talked up its new KFC stores in both Australia and Germany, Sizzler Australia didn't even warrant a mention as one of the firm's priorities.
This will sadden Vasudha Chandra, who has remained loyal to the brand.
"I've been going to Sizzler for more than 20 years and have many great memories of meals there with family and friends.
It was casual dining that was easy, filling and good value," she told news.com.au.
"I especially enjoyed the trademark cheesy bread. I don't know what went wrong, but I'm devastated that the decision was made to close more Sizzler restaurants rather than fix the problems."
If Ms Chandra does want to continue to enjoy Sizzler she may need to head to Shanghai rather than Sydney. It's Asia where Sizzler's focus is now.
Revenue at its stores in Thailand and China is up 15 per cent, Collins Foods says, as diners lap up the Australian-owned, all-American eating experience.
But closer to home, can Sizzler be saved? Future Food's Mr Loughran has his doubts.
"Sizzler was established in the family market many years ago and it became part of the suburbs and shopping centres with long leases. But the world around them in eating and dining has changed dramatically," he said.
"To survive, they would have to consider the brand value of Sizzler and in my opinion Sizzler no longer reflects what the customer wants in a modern family restaurant today."