Keeping the faith: can you expand your empire without diluting your ideals?
The number of high profile premium casual dining chains experiencing difficulties continues to rise
Last year Jamie Oliver had to bail out Jamie’s Italian with his own money, the Gaucho group has gone into administration and Byron, Strada, Prezzo, Cafe Rouge and La Tasca are all feeling the financial pinch.
High city centre rents raised to unsustainable levels on contract renewal is one reason often cited for failure, along with intense competition from similar chains in a crowded marketplace. There is also the pressure to expand quickly to make as much money as possible, which can lead to dilution of the brand’s original vision and falling levels of quality and service.
In an interview in Out of Home Magazine, London-based leisure and hospitality property agent David Abramson says consumers at the lower price end of the market are more discerning nowadays, wanting good service and a choice of quality hot food. Affordable dining can no longer get away with lower standards along with lower prices.
This is good news for small, independent restaurants and gastropubs. According to Abramson, the economic slowdown means there are more opportunities to take advantage of: “This is a great time to establish yourself in a market where so many more experienced players are struggling for new ideas.”
Operating on a smaller scale means you can be responsive to customer requirements and vary the menu more frequently, taking advantage of seasonal local produce. If a dish doesn’t sell, you can more easily change it for one that will.
Customers nowadays expect an ‘experience’ when they dine out, and again, it’s easier to stand out from the crowd as an independent, adapting your offer to suit changing tastes and even bringing in pop-ups occasionally to give your regular customers something new to try and to attract new diners. You can choose your own, independent suppliers, not being tied to central purchasing.
But what happens when you want to take your successful business to the next level? How does an independent chain (ie more than one venue) avoid the pitfalls and make sure their offer remains true to the original vision?
TV chef and pub landlord Tom Kerridge was faced with such a dilemma. Building on the success of his Hand and Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire – the first pub to achieve two Michelin stars – he opened first The Coach and, at the end of last year, The Butcher’s Tap, both also in Marlow.
Tom now has three thriving establishments that offer very different experiences while sticking to his stated aim of providing “a proper pub, but with proper food. A friendly, comfortable atmosphere, where everybody’s welcome… Professional but approachable service from people who love to eat out as much as we do.”
Under Head Chef Tom de Keyser, The Coach has now acquired its own Michelin star, providing a relaxed environment with a simpler food offering than that of the Hand and Flowers. The Butcher’s Tap is “a cracking boozer and a traditional butcher’s shop, all wrapped up in one”, where the in-house butchers prepare a full range of well-sourced British meats for customers to buy and take home. Patrons can also enjoy a range of ales and other drinks, with a small but tasty selection of food to go with them.
Hopefully a Rick Stein-style domination of Marlow will be avoided (Stein famously opened so many businesses in the Cornish village of Padstow that it has been dubbed ‘Padstein’). Tom Kerridge, on the other hand, appears to be achieving expansion in a gentle, community-friendly manner that is in keeping with his genial public persona and the ambition expressed when he launched the Hand and Flowers to provide food for everyone to enjoy in a relaxed and accessible environment where everybody is welcome.
It is understandable that owners of independent restaurants and pubs with a great food offer will want to expand. But can a group grow further without succumbing to the temptations of central purchasing and ‘foodservice’ economies? Kerridge’s example shows it is certainly possible to keep the quality and adjust the offer. However great care must be taken to preserve the integrity of the customer experience: lose your vision and you will lose customers. Ask Jamie Oliver…
Using Comesto is a great way for discerning chefs and managers of restaurants, pubs, bars and cafes to keep up to date with the latest trends and offerings from high end independent food and drink producers. In minutes you can search the market and contact suppliers direct with one click to order samples, arrange a call-back or send an email.