Eateries fill up as Illawarra diners open wallets

Dozens of Illawarra restaurants have enjoyed the fruits of a statewide boom in the dining sector as patrons open their wallets and return to eating out.

After months of penny-pinching, diners have started to head out again, leading the NSW restaurant industry to a record November, bringing in $626 million.

New data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed a 15 per cent increase in NSW dining in the 12 months to November last year.

Wollongong cafe Diggies, operated by Stan Crinis and his brother, Aaron, had noted a recent increase in trade.

"We've definitely felt it over the past few months, we can just see there are more people out and about," Stan Crinis said.

"We saw a real decline around the lead-up to the [federal] election last year, people stopped spending for a little while and we noticed a lull ... it's taken time for people to start dining out again."

Mr Crinis said the cafe's tourist trade had notably grown since late last year, along with its regular clientele.

But the boom has not brought good news for all Illawarra restaurants, with several dining spots, including Bon Aroma and Wollongong's Rocksalt Bar and Grill shutting their doors.

Restaurant and Catering Association chief executive John Hart believed the fundamentals of the industry were still in crisis as expensive staff costs continued to plague eateries.

"Businesses are still closing their doors on Sundays and public holidays because of the dangerously high cost of labour," he said.

Mr Crinis agreed, noting several cafes closed over Christmas.

"A lot of businesses just can't afford to pay the penalty rates," he said.

"We're lucky that we have a high volume of patrons so we can afford it but when it's quieter, it's really hard.

"It's the service that suffers - some small business owners try and do everything themselves because they simply can't afford to put other people on."

Mr Crinis said wages had steadily increased over the years but he could not continue to put food prices up to balance the rise.

Despite spiralling business costs, Mr Crinis was confident the Illawarra's dining scene would continue to grow, particularly as more diverse eateries sprung up.

"I think there's a bigger offering now than there has been," he said.

"It's really noticeable in Wollongong - for a while there, people were just opening seafood restaurants or cafes, now there's places opening with something different to offer and it's bringing people out."

Diggies manager Elise Flowers outside the packed cafe. Picture: GREG TOTMAN

Diggies manager Elise Flowers outside the packed cafe. Picture: GREG TOTMAN