Aussie-themed US-run chain provides food for thought
For too long we've let foreign firms exploit and profit from our ideas.
In March, the American division of the international restaurant chain Outback Steakhouse launched a campaign to raise $1 million, through the sale of certain menu items, to help US troops and their families.
Though the restaurants are supposedly Australian in menu and ambience, and our troops are fighting beside the Yanks, the campaign publicity material ignored this little fact.
Outback Steakhouse is a chain with almost global reach marketing the theme that munching its meals is a true Australian experience.
Staff are known as ''outbackers'' and the menu includes Walkabout Soup, Alice Springs Chicken, Gold Coast Coconut Shrimp (not prawn) and The Melbourne, which is some kind of giant steak.
There are hundreds of outlets in the US and around the world from Beijing to Britain - and even six in Sydney offering a truly Aussie experience. If you think this is an example of Australia capitalising on the global envy of our charm, culture and tastes, you are wrong. The chain's headquarters is in the US state of Florida.
We have long been content to have foreigners - rather than ourselves - exploit and profit from our ideas and our raw materials, from the macadamia nut to the black-box flight recorder, so why not a US-based company that globally markets Australian-style food.
In keeping with this trend is the fate of Gippsland Aeronautics, Australia's only significant local designer and manufacturer of aircraft; its factory is near Morwell. It makes a crop duster and a successful eight-seater, the Airvan, which it has sold around the world, including to the US armed forces.
But the company's most optimistic project was to resurrect the 17-seater twin-engined Nomad, which was built in the 1970s and '80s by its original designer, the Government Aircraft Factory, now in the hands of America's Boeing.
With precious little interest in their products from state or federal governments, the global financial crisis meant Gippsland Aero had to find an overseas investor, and this they found in Indian car and tractor conglomerate Mahindra & Mahindra. It snapped up 75 per cent of the company late last year and, while shopping, also bagged the Melbourne-based aircraft components firm Aerostaff Australia.
While national attention has been focused on the bleating of the mining industry over a new tax, despite the apparent armistice after Julia Gillard's ascendancy, at the back of the national mindset is a terror that these glorified rock shovellers will make good their threats to do more of their shovelling offshore. In the meantime, home-grown industries that actually make something disappear into offshore hands without a whimper.
The sale of these two companies has been virtually unrecorded in the mainstream Australian media. The Indians are astute business opportunists and Anand Mahindra, vice-chairman and managing director of the $7 billion conglomerate, says the acquisitions are to help his country expand its fledgling aeronautics industry.
In the past, India has had no shame in bolstering its manufacturing by buying cast-off but functional designs from elsewhere, such as the 1950s British Morris Oxford car that is still built as the Hindustan Ambassador, or the 1950s British Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle that is still built as the Indian Enfield Bullet motorcycle. Mahindra & Mahindra has long been building a copy of the World War II Jeep and now the Airvan seems destined for the same future.
Anand Mahindra admitted as much when he said the attraction of buying Gippsland Aero was that it owned aircraft types that were already certified to fly. This includes the Nomad, which dropped in Australian esteem after a series of crashes due to a design fault. More than half of the 172 built are still flying, having had the design flaw sorted. The plane is still popular in Asia and the Pacific, because it is cheap to fly and can operate from rough airstrips.
Resurrecting it has been Gippsland Aero's big project, and if it succeeds the profits and expertise will be in Indian hands; home-grown technological success does not seem something we value.
Bureau of Statistics figures show Victorian manufacturing jobs fell from 265,000 in the February quarter this year to 245,000 in the May quarter, the lowest on record. When we transfer ownership, we transfer control.
So what happens when a US-owned and controlled restaurant chain markets Australian food? This month their Bangkok restaurant's outback feature is - prime New Zealand lamb chops. Ah well, the flags are almost identical anyway.
Geoff Strong is an Age senior writer.