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Fri 30th Jan 2015 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Making a local connection, sin taxes and US consumers relationship with fast casual brands
Authors: Martyn Cornell, Paul Chase and Darren Tristano

Making a local connection by Martyn Cornell

If you walk into the PizzaExpress restaurant in Teddington, Middlesex, the walls are decorated with lyrics from “Mad About the Boy” and “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”, two songs by Noel Coward, as well as posters of films he starred in. The reason is that Coward was born in the road the restaurant sits on, and The Master was thus an easy choice when it came to picking a theme for the restaurant’s redecoration as part of PizzaExpress’s current “local links” drive. Where once all was corporate cloning in PizzaExpress – everywhere white marble-topped tables, black and white tiled floor, white walls, what someone once called “refectory chic” – for the past year or so the chain has been concentrating on finding local heroes to honour in its decorations for each restaurant. The theme behind the decor in the PizzaExpress in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, for example, is Lewis Hamilton, the current Formula 1 champion, who grew up in the town, and is certainly a hero locally. The Basingstoke PizzaExpress was redecorated last October with a theme celebrating Thomas Burberry, the inventor of Gabardine weather-proof cloth, who opened his first shop in 1856, in Winchester Street, Basingstoke when he was just 21. Artwork at the refurbished restaurant is “inspired” by the famous beige, black and red Burberry check pattern, with a series of canvases displaying “significant and memorable events” in the Burberry timeline. In Bedford the town’s PizzaExpress branch is in the building where Harold Abrahams, the athlete whose victory in the 1924 Olympics was the basis for the film Chariots of Fire, was born, and the walls thus honour Abrahams and his achievements. The new Walthamstow PizzaExpress, opened last November, celebrates the history of the town’s greyhound racing stadium. In Witney, the design bigs up the town’s long association with weaving blankets. In the Ecclesall Road, Sheffield branch the decor celebrates the city’s steel-making traditions, while Sheffield steel knives have been thrust into the wooden columns around the restaurant, for customers to hang their coats on. At another Sheffield PizzaExpress, meanwhile, in St Paul’s Place, the walls carry drawings of Jarvis Cocker and other local musicians. You see the picture.

Chains trying to find local links for their individual outlets is not new, of course. JD Wetherspoon has been doing it for at least a couple of decades, with pub names chosen to reflect local themes, and information boards inside the pubs explaining the story behind the name. This is starting to cause unfortunate clashes, however: the PizzaExpress in Twickenham, “Home of England Rugby”, as a sign at the local railway station declares, has been redecorated with a rugby theme, in time for the Rugby World Cup this summer, while around the corner the local Wetherspoon pub is called the William Webb Ellis, after the Rugby schoolboy whose act of picking up the ball and running with it during a football match is said to have invented the game of Rugby. The Wetherspoon pub in Witney is called the Company of Weavers. Fortunately, Teddington has other famous former residents besides Noel Coward – Benny Hill, for example – so if Tim Martin ever opens up in the town, he can call his pub “Two-Ton Ted’s” rather than “Blithe Spirit”.

Still, the overlaps show the dangers of trying too hard to make a local connection. It’s understandable that chains should sometimes want to swing as far away from the cookie-cutter path as possible. Customers, it is felt, can be put off if every one of your restaurants looks the same, especially if you have several close together, as PizzaExpress and Wetherspoon increasingly do. Nando’s doesn’t go in for actual localisation, but it makes sure that if it does have more than one restaurant they don’t look like each other inside. But I wonder if that is over-worrying. For me, the marble table tops and checked tiles in PizzaExpresses of yore were part of the brand reassurance, that here would be fault-free food, reasonably priced. Indeed, I find myself growing positively nostalgic for the obsolete design: others may have their McDonald’s “timeless moments”, but I began my eating out career in the 1970s, when reliable, inexpensive restaurant food was hard to find, and the swirly art-nouveau PizzaExpress logo on the outside was a guarantee that a new date could be dined inside without too much wallet embarrassment, and with the prospect of something tasty to enjoy if the conversation started going limp. Was there a girlfriend back then that I didn’t take to a PizzaExpress within a month or three of first starting to go out with her? I don’t believe there was. Still, I suppose today I could always stare at the restaurant walls and learn something about greyhound racing, or blanket making, or the Sheffield music scene, if the sparks failed to ignite with the lady across the table.
Martyn Cornell is managing editor of Propel Info

Sin taxes and political choice by Paul Chase

‘Sin taxes’ is the term used to denote taxes levied to reduce consumption of things that are notionally bad for us, at least if consumed to excess. Taxes on tobacco and alcohol are obvious examples, although in recent years ‘healthists’ and their allies in various political parties have added to the list. Proposals to tax high-strength alcohol, foods containing high levels of sugar, and/or saturated fats have all been proposed. “Improving public health” is, of course, a convenient cover for taking more of our money off us on the dubious basis that the government will spend it more wisely than we will; and on the even more dubious basis that if you raise the price of sin you will make people more virtuous.

But what the electorate thinks of such taxes is an issue for politicians of all parties to ponder in this, an election year. A poll commissioned by the Institute of Economic Affairs, and conducted by ComRes of 4,135 adults interviewed face-to-face between the 9th and 13th December 2014, produced some interesting results:

70% of those interviewed said they thought it should be the individual’s responsibility to make their own lifestyle choices and the government should not interfere. Once you eliminate the “don’t knows” the figure rises to 80%. A half of those interviewed (51%) believe that indirect taxes are too high, rising to 70% of those who expressed a view; 78% believe these taxes hit the poor the hardest.

A majority of Britons, according to the poll, believe the government should not offer financial incentives to people who are trying to lose weight (61%), stop smoking (60%), or stop drinking excessively (62%). And half (51%) believe that pubs and private members clubs should be allowed to have a private room for people to smoke in if they want to, with 31% disagreeing.

On the introduction of sin taxes on fizzy drinks, half of respondents (49%) opposed such a tax and this rises to 57% once “don’t knows” are eliminated from the figures. Similarly, half (51%) of Britons and 59% of those expressing a preference oppose a new tax on food and drink containing salt and/or high levels of sugar.

Most Britons think that the taxes on wine, spirits, and beer are all too high, as opposed to too low. Of those expressing a preference 65% thought the tax on a bottle of wine was too high; 60% think this about tax on a bottle of vodka; and 49% think the tax on a pint of beer is too high.

What is even more interesting is how opinion is distributed amongst different age groups and the supporters of different political parties. Just a fifth of those aged between 18 and 24 believe government interferes too much in lifestyles, as opposed to half of 55 to 64 year olds. And amongst those who express a party political preference the percentage of those who believe that it should be the individual’s responsibility to make their own lifestyle choices, and that government should not interfere divides up as follows:

UKIP: 82%; Conservatives: 74%; Labour: 68%; Liberal Democrats: 64%.

So, crucially, amongst those most likely to vote at the general election – namely older people and those with a clear party political allegiance – there is overwhelming opposition to sin taxes and the nanny state. For the Conservative and Labour parties who are suffering from the UKIP effect, it should be noted that UKIP supporters overwhelmingly oppose these things. So if they want to win them back they should take note!

Labour has published its approach in a paper titled: ‘Labour’s New Approach to Public Health in the 21st Century’. Interestingly they acknowledge the threat posed by appearing too ‘nanny state’, but then go on to propose policies that are decidedly nanny state, albeit thinly disguised. Consider this statement: “But, to avoid accusations of a ‘nanny state’ approach we need to set out clearly what we see as the proper limits to government action. If policy makers fail to address the ‘nanny-state’ claim, it could in the end undermine public support for making progress on public health. A negative tone, perceived as telling people what to do, can turn people off.” And this statement: “If the 20th century challenge was all about adding years to life, the 21st century must be about adding life to years.” And then this: “We propose new national ambitions – positive, shared aspirations that will help us all play our part to become a healthier, happier nation.”

This comes perilously close to saying that the mission of ‘public health’ is to make people happy! But it’s not ‘nanny state’, oh no!
Paul Chase is a director of CPL Training and a leading commentator on on-trade health and alcohol policy 

The relationship between US consumers and fast casual brands by Darren Tristano

Consumers in the US like the variety offered on the menu at fast-casual restaurants, but that does not necessarily mean they’re looking to spice things up with a lot of change.

There are several ways fast-casual brands provide variety to consumers, either by having just a handful of items that can be customised however customers want or by offering lots of flavour combinations across many signature entrees. Either way, consumers tend to be more satisfied with that set-up than with the variety they normally see at a fast-food restaurant or a coffeehouse.

According to the latest Consumer Brand Metrics report, 74% of consumers say they’re “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the variety of offerings at fast-casual brands, compared with 63% of consumers giving similar ratings for both fast-food and coffee-café restaurants.

With most consumers satisfied with what they can order at fast-casual chains – and with how they can order it and customise it – most of them don’t want those restaurants to “fix” something they don’t consider broken. Only 4% of consumers say fast-casual brands should decrease the number of items they sell. By contrast, 5% of consumers say coffee-café chains should slim down the menu and 8% say the same about fast-food restaurants.

This makes sense when consumers consider how most fast-casual restaurants are set up. Chipotle Mexican Grill essentially has two offerings, a burrito or a burrito bowl, but customers can get those items exactly the way they like with different meats, toppings and add-ons. Emerging fast-casual pizza chains could have more than a dozen signature varieties of a quick-fired pizza, in addition to their best-selling build-your-own pies. But the menu category generating the bulk of their sales is pizza. Not too many consumers would suggest that Chipotle cut back on burritos or Blaze Pizza cut back on pizzas.

New menu items and limited-time offers come on and off the menu much more in fast food, where the big chains are competing to steal each other’s traffic, so consumers are more likely to feel overloaded and could stand to see menus winnowed down a bit.

However, some consumers still want more culinary innovation, particularly younger consumers. Here, fast casual falls in between its limited-service competitors: 28% of consumers would like to see an increase in new menu items on fast-casual menus, while 26% say so for fast-food menus and 30% for coffee-café brands. In every case, consumers between the ages of 18 and 34 are far ahead of their older peers in pushing for more menu innovation.

Fast casual’s big opportunities for reloading menus come from its inherent competitive advantages of customisation and serving alcohol.

Two in five consumers want more customisable options at fast-casual restaurants, compared with 32% saying this about fast-food brands and 30% about coffee-café brands. The other place where fast-casual significantly leads its limited-service peers is in the demand for adult beverages: 11% of consumers want more of those options at fast-casual chains, compared with 5% each for fast-food and coffee-cafe brands.

Of course, change is a constant in both life and business. But fast-casual leaders could focus menu innovation on a few key opportunities, while leaving much of their core menus untouched, and net big wins with consumers.
Darren Tristano is executive vice-president of research and insights firm Technomic

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