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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 12th Sep 2014 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: High street restaurant gold rush, McDonald’s and choosing a brand in Milton Keynes
Authors: Paul Charity, Martyn Cornell and Ann Elliott
 

Winners and losers in the high street restaurant gold rush by Paul Charity

It is reminiscent of the high street investment rush driven by the major managed pub company in the late 1990s. Multiple pub brands parked their high street concepts in-line across numerous markets. The investment rush seemed to produce a heady excitement and weekends were heaving with young revellers flocking to city and town centres for a while. But it was comparatively short-lived and there were multiple casualties, not least because many of the openings were predicated on a few short hours of intense weekend trading. Many national companies failed to see the return on investment they were seeking – and changed their business models forever. Whitbread moved out of high street pubs, for example, having discovered its multiple high street concepts, led by Hogshead, lacked longevity. Smaller managed multiples collapsed: SFI Group may be remembered for opening the embodiment of the non-differentiated brand in Litten Tree. And there were other unlikely types looking to get in on the act and failing. Who remembers Eldridge Pope and its ill-fated Toad brand? Even the mighty Luminar found its category-killing Chicago Rock Cafe brand undermined by increasingly liberal licensing.
 
The market town of Horsham in West Sussex, with its population of 55,657, is currently seeing a very similar torrent of investment from restaurant companies small and large. The town’s East Street has been transformed into a restaurant destination on a scale few Horsham residents could have imagined a few years ago. In the past 12 months, the investment frenzy has reached new heights and there is no longer a gap between multiple brands. One stretch of East Street now has an Ask Italian, a Nando’s, a Cote and a Giggling Squid directly alongside each other (three of these have opened in the past year). In a 150-metre stretch of the street, there are 16 outlets, both major brands and independents, slugging it out for a share of the eating-out spend. PizzaExpress, Strada, Wagamama, Bill’s, Buenos Aires and Prezzo, Real Eating Company and a Spirit Pub Company-operated Taylor Walker all have representation. The good-quality independents include Wabi, serving high-quality Asian food, Carmela, with warmly received Sicilian dishes, Tristan’s, which has a Michelin star, and the River Kwai, offering Thai. Maintaining the current pace of investment, Nando’s opened three weeks ago, Wabi re-opened last week and, just off East Street, better burgers have arrived in the form of Meat in the Middle. Other dining-out openings are lined up – though pub and bar openings are as rare as they were legion just 15 years ago.
 
The question arises: can they all survive? What seems apparent is that Horsham has created a full-blown eating-out quarter and the town’s car parks are jammed early evening to an extent I have never seen. Depressingly and predictably, the local authority has moved to monetise the situation by introducing an early evening parking charge. It is only £1, but it clearly taxes economic activity that lends a vital fresh lease of life to the town centre economy. Figures this week indicated consumer spending in bars and restaurants jumped by 9.2% in August: could this be fuelled, in part, by consumers happily trying multiple new openings across the country even if not on Horsham’s scale?
 
Nevertheless there will of course be winners and losers. It is still very early in this particular investment cycle but already Giraffe has given up in Horsham, allowing Giggling Squid to open in a site offering a good-quality shell. Starbucks declined to renew the lease on its site, presumably not passing muster against the triple challenge of Caffe Nero, Pret A Manger and Costa Coffee, which is currently refitting its site to offer more capacity.
 
Predicting who will prosper and who will fade away in this current gold rush is fraught with the potential for personal embarrassment. But Horsham’s Strada looks in need of a re-investment boost. More generally, five of the 15 restaurants on East Street and nearby are Italian – clearly an over-representation compared to the one-in-seven national average. Ask Italian has moved out of my also-ran category to the front of the Italian peleton in Horsham based on quality of environment and menu (from my very personal perspective). Buenos Aires serves superlative steak but the very toppy price-point (six of us paid £45 a head for just a main course and drinks last Friday) make this “special occasion” dining. Giggling Squid has no invested Thai competition. Based on multiple walk-by and sit-in head counts, Nando’s, Wagamama, Cote and Bill’s look rock-steady. Wabi has a 2.30am licence and can combine a food business with a high-margin late-night cocktail business. Tristan’s is a unique experience with the highest quality food in Horsham, allowing it to occupy top spot on TripAdvisor.
 
Two weeks ago I met Mark Derry, who leads Brasserie Blanc. Part of the company’s move into pubs is driven by the desire to step away from the cratering effect some of these brands must be seeing as new competition arrives. Have we reached the stage where high street investment is not the way forward for a number of brands? 
Paul Charity is managing director of Propel Info
 

Could the tide be turning against McDonald’s? by Martyn Cornell

Could the tide be turning against McDonald’s? Luke Johnson is one who thinks so: as we reported earlier this week, Johnson, one of the country’s leading hospitality entrepreneurs, wrote in his Financial Times column that the inventor of the Big Mac may be “in structural decline”, as the company loses is attraction to younger consumers. Part of that may be to do with concerns about what McDonald’s sells: “Diners want fresher, healthier food and a more bespoke offering,” said Johnson, whose own Rocket restaurants will sell you a “homemade” burger containing 100% chuck beef on a “pain de mie” bun with baby gem lettuce, tomato, “baconnaise” (bacon-flavoured mayonnaise, for those of you who have yet to discover it), sesame gherkin and big chips for £13.50 – exactly three times the price of a Big Mac medium meal deal in a London McDonald’s.
 
In addition, Johnson blamed a societal shift among Generation Y consumers, “Customers younger than 30 are more promiscuous in their brand choices and have less product loyalty … younger customers are less tolerant of an overwhelming dominance of a few big businesses.”
 
I’m not sure that’s entirely true, though in the United States, McDonald’s monthly visits by 19 to 21-year-olds have dropped 12.9% since 2011, according to the restaurant consultancy Technomic. It may well be that there is a reaction against corporate sameness among young consumers. I was intrigued after my comments on Nando’s in last week’s Propel Friday Opinion to be told by someone who does business with the chain that the peri-peri chicken chain “absolutely gets” the need for design diversity, within brand boundaries, where there may ultimately be multiple Nando’s sites in a city. What that means is that no one Nando’s will ever look too much like another, just to avoid its customers feeling oppressed by big-brand sameness. The idea is to be a deliberate contrast to the clone-alike look of a McDonald’s.
 
Certainly the golden arches company is suffering. In the US this week, McDonald’s reported its worst monthly global sales decline in more than a decade. Like-for-like sales at restaurants open at least 13 months were down 3.7% in August, the fourth consecutive month of sales declines. Ultimately, however, if there is a problem at McDonald’s – and certainly the stock market thinks so, with shares in the company down more than 6% this year on Wall Street, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 is up nearly 8% and Chipotle Mexican Grill stock is up 26% – it’s more likely, I suspect, to be the food, or rather, the image of the food, and all that goes with it.
 
It is fantastic, really, that McDonald’s can sell you two all-beef patties, sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame seed bun, plus fries and a drink, for so little money. Three can eat out for the price of just one of Luke Johnson’s Rocket burgers. But value is cost divided into perceived benefits – and the message around poor McDonald’s appears to be that its food isn’t bringing benefits, but disbenefits. Many people apparently actively dislike the brand. In the UK, the chain is running into constant problems trying to open new stores, particularly new stores near schools, because of the perceived unhealthiness of its food and the problems having a McDonald’s restaurant in the vicinity is alleged to bring. In Newcastle upon Tyne on Monday night the public gallery cheered loudly when councillors rejected an application to convert a former pub near the city’s biggest secondary school into a McDonald’s, after 446 people signed a petition against the proposal and only six signed one in favour. In March, McDonald’s lost its fourth attempt to demolish a vacant pub in Morley, Leeds and build a two-storey drive-through restaurant in its place, after more than a thousand people objected to the proposal, citing problems with traffic generation, noise, litter and associated anti-social behaviour. In January, 750 people signed a petition against McDonald’s opening on the edge of Monmouth. In Farnborough last autumn, 3,000 people signed a petition against a plan to convert the Tumbledown Dick pub into a McDonald’s. In June last year, councillors in Greenwich, South East London threw out an application to convert the Dutch House pub in Eltham into a McDonald’s, after a petition signed by 420 people against the change, with one of the cited objections being that it was too close to a primary school.
 
If so many people are willing to sign petitions against having your brand on their doorsteps, your problems are deeper than Millennials wanting more customisation, or your menu being too complicated and slowing down serving times, two somewhat conflicting reasons that have been put forward to explain falling sales at McDonald’s. It may just be that in the US, at least, the limited-service burger segment has finally reached maturity. In the 2014 Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report, the chains in the sector recorded nominal growth of only 1.2%. Adjusting for price inflation, sales actually declined. Overall units increased by only 1% to 42,853 locations. Quick service burger chains accounted for $69.7bn in sales but increased only 0.9% in sales volume with weak performance not just from McDonald’s, but Wendy’s, up just 1% to $8.8bn, and Burger King, down 1% to $8.5bn.
 
Still, in this country, where McDonald’s is marking 40 years of operations with a nationwide advertising campaign supposed to remind customers about the role it has played in the memorable moments in their lives, the company appears to be doing well. At the same time as the poor US results were announced, McDonald’s UK revealed a rise in profits of 27% as turnover for the year to 31 December rose by £180m, or 13.7%, to £1.5bn. That doesn’t look much like structural decline, no matter if the burghers of Newcastle did boo the burgers of McDonald’s. 
Martyn Cornell is managing editor of Propel Info
 

Choosing a brand in Milton Keynes by Ann Elliott

It was interesting on Wednesday night going out with a group of friends to see Before I Go to Sleep at the cinema in Milton Keynes’ Xscape. Of course, I should have realised before we ventured out that it was Orange Wednesday: the car park would be heaving and it would take 15 minutes to find a car parking slot. (Note to self to move cinema club to Mondays.)
 
Milton Keynes boasts most of the casual dining chains, with a good smattering of gastro-pubs (including PCDG, Peach and Little Gems) and even a Michelin-starred restaurant, Paris House, in Woburn (featured on Chris Evans’s Mystery Guest slot yesterday). I would say, as a group of friends, we eat out pretty regularly and know most of the restaurants around here. But Wednesday’s visit to Xscape (where there are many of these brands) was a bit of a surprise.
 
First stop, before we went in through those huge shopping centre doors that only Olympic gold medal weightlifters can open, was JD Wetherspoon. Pretty full. Good mix of people. “Go in there?” I asked. “Err, no, the food’s too cheap to be any good.” We moved on and in.
 
Inside the doorway on the right hand side was Nando’s. Really busy with customers piling up in the waiting area and around the ordering point. “What about Nando’s?” “No, reminds me of coming here with the kids, and I want a bit of a grown-up evening.” Onwards and upwards.
 
Inside on the left was Frankie & Benny’s. Not full but a reasonable smattering of customers. The group walked straight past – didn’t even stop to look. Again perhaps it’s a life stage thing: went there when the children were smaller when we took them to see Harry Potter , and we just don’t want to go back to that particular life stage again.
 
The next restaurant was PizzaExpress – the place where, unequivocally, everyone wanted to go. Not just a lowest common denominator excuse. None of us had a voucher or a loyalty card. The queues there were out of the door and spilling into the shopping area. We sort of joined the back of the queue and then decided we wouldn’t get in and out in time to see the film. So back to our search.
 
The next restaurant in our sights was Wagamama. Again, quite full, though not queueing out of the door. Good use of outside space (as much as outside space can be when it’s actually inside) but looked like a nice atmosphere. “No,” said one of my friends, “I never know what to have in Wagamama or what I’m getting. It’s so bloody confusing.” We walked on.
 
“So what about Coal? It’s right next door. There are tables free here.” The group was bemused. “What on earth is Coal? What do they do? Why is a restaurant called Coal?” There was too much hesitation and too much having to sell Coal on my part. We carried on. 
 
So we stood at the bottom of the escalator to the cinema facing an evening meal of wine gums, sweet popcorn, a limp hotdog and lukewarm coke. We had to find somewhere.
 
“How about Ask?”, I ventured. No one said no, so I led the group determinedly there. No queues. Table free. Familiar food. Friendly waiter who acknowledged us immediately. Nice enough decor. Everything was fine – good, even. We were served quickly and the waiter brought the bill when we were still eating so we could get out quicker.
 
We could have gone to the new-look Beefeater across the road (one of 20 test sites doing a storm) or the Turtle Bay in the hub, which is a blast, but all a bit too much of an effort.
 
I liked Ask. Does what it says on the tin, consistently. I’m not sure why it was half-empty and why we had to walk past much fuller restaurants. Perhaps the Milton Keynes public doesn’t really know about the little jewel in its midst. Good for us, but more work for the brand to do, I think.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of the leading sector marketing and public relations agency Elliotts – www.elliottsagency.com

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