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Fri 26th Feb 2016 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: The reinvigoration of Café Rouge, the growing appetite for craft beer, and the art of the menu
Authors: James Spragg, Glynn Davis, and Ann Elliott

The reinvigoration of Café Rouge by James Spragg

I remember reading an article about restaurant brand management by Tony Hughes. He noted a certain pattern of behaviour for operators who come in new to a brand they’ve inherited – paraphrasing, he said they cannot help but criticise anything and everything, and then some. I totally agree. Hughes’ words were ringing in my ears as I sat down to write this article, after Propel asked me to pen my thoughts on the transformation programme at Café Rouge. So let me just start by saying this is, and always was, a fantastic brand. There were some very specific reasons as to why it had perhaps lost its way in recent times, which I plan to touch on, before giving a flavour of what we’ve done in the past 12 months, and what we intend to do next.

I came in as managing director just over a year ago, prior to which I had a short stint running Strada and before that, PizzaExpress. One of the main issues was there were so many competing views about where to take this brand and that had led to confusion. Several attempted evolutions, which had dramatically changed the business, hadn’t worked. The rejuvenation investments had generally moved up sales only temporarily – instead of sales continuing to build in year two (post investment) the numbers fell away.

In considering the way forward, we had to look back. We looked at a raft of consumer measures – general feedback, consumer reviews, mystery diner scores, net promoter scores, focus groups and so on. There was a lot of latent love for the brand, with lots of comments about how good it had been (in the past). What was clear was people wanted it to be good again. There was also a sense Café Rouge was trying to go after younger customers and trying to be a bit cooler. This resonated and was visible in some of the attempted redesigns and newer menus – a reaction perhaps to what was happening in the general casual and fast-casual market (we had hot dogs as our lead promotion). It’s important to say a lot of the attempted changes were well-intentioned. It felt a bit like the cricketer who has lost form with the bat – they need to go back to basics and go back to the nets, graft and drill their technique. This brand had come out swinging furiously, and it felt like there wasn’t a loud enough voice saying: “This is what we are; this is what we are not.” 

The brand needed to be nurtured and protected and loved. It needed some leadership. Georgia Hall, an experienced brand director, joined pretty much on the same day as me. We were in fierce agreement on the direction the brand should go in, which was to take it back to what made it great, focusing on our strengths and core customers. What seemed clear was Café Rouge should not try to be a cool brand; it was a heritage brand, which didn’t need radical change but to evolve with its guests. I experienced something similar at PizzaExpress. Just like that brand, Café Rouge needed to take itself back to what it was really good at and do it very well. In terms of food, that meant giving customers what they clearly wanted, which was classic, authentic French food done really well (not their recipes changed every five minutes). The reality was the food had previously lost its way a little bit – we had eight different menus across 90 restaurants. Now we have one and we have focused on the things an authentic French bistro should do very well – classic French dishes such as steak frites, as well as wine, coffee, cheese, pastries and desserts.

The brand is 26 years old and the competition now in our all-day dining space is huge, with great brands such as Bill’s, Carluccio’s and Cote all trying to take our lunch (and breakfast and dinner). We had to get comfortable with them and focus on what we (not them) did well. We needed to set it on the right path for the next five to ten years. That said, the nature of the market meant investment was a key issue, as some of the Café Rouge restaurants had not been refurbished in many years. It meant the dining environment was tired, as were the cooking platforms, which meant some dishes were very difficult for our operators to produce. This had to be changed quickly as it was hitting not just customer satisfaction but morale too. Thankfully, the backing of Casual Dining Group and its investors meant we were able to address this at pace. By 2017, we will have refurbished all 90 restaurants. 

Of course, alongside product and property, the other fundamental “p” was people. The first thing we did was meet the general managers in groups of five and ten. They were an important sounding board and hearing what they had to say shaped our brand roadmap. Service culture is a massive focus for the next 12 months as we strive to be complaint free, with guests genuinely made to feel special. We are changing all reward structures around this objective – how we measure our business will centre on the satisfaction of our guests. To this end, we will be partnering with the Alain Ducasse organisation – it will help us develop and operate a world-class training facility at our Euston business support centre. It will also input on our food, menu, restaurants and service delivery and we are confident our next menu change this month will be another big step forward, but crucially one our customers will embrace.

In terms of the transformation, we’re not there yet. We have much work to do and the reality is that we will never get “there” such is the nature of competing in today’s market. We need to continually evolve. What I can say is the brand is back in sales growth and this trend appears to be sustained, which is very encouraging. Our customer scores are moving forward too. Finally, our refurbishments in late 2014 have gone into year two (post-refurbishment) and the sales momentum is building further. The programme is demonstrating what we had hoped – the refurbishments would act as the catalyst to help give our operators a great platform to build on. The renewal of the brand and the rejuvenation of our restaurants have also energised our people; in addition to an absolute sense of focus, there is also a high level of engagement with a brand people feel passionate about. These results have given us the confidence to turn the dial up on our customer marketing efforts, which will hopefully deliver further incremental sales momentum.

In addition to the refurbishment, the brand is set to return to site growth. We are due to open one site at the end of May, and are in discussions on a further four, with a plan to add five per year. Café Rouge has also gone international – last year opening in Dubai through a franchise partnership – which is obviously adding another exciting dimension. We know we have got to keep this brand moving forward, but we will do it in a considered way that really respects our core customers. We will keep investing in people, the brand and our properties. The absolute focus is on operating authentic French bistros that serve great tasting food, with engaging staff, in a warm and comfortable environment.
James Spragg is managing director of Café Rouge and Belgo, part of Casual Dining Group

The growing appetite for craft beer by Glynn Davis

The queues snaked out the door, across the yard, through the gates and right down the road. And it was only 3.30pm at the beer festival to celebrate the fourth birthday of Beavertown Brewery. The doors had only opened at 1pm, but it was clear from the crowds that quite a few thousand people had made the journey on a wet Saturday afternoon to the industrial estate in Tottenham, north London, to toast the brewery’s special occasion.

They had been tempted by not only Beavertown’s ales but also an impressive array of other beers sourced from some of the finest brewers in the UK and across the rest of Europe. Many of the owners/brewers were also present to enjoy the festivities. The sheer number of people attending highlighted the growing appetite for craft beers, which I’m reliably informed now accounts for 20% of total beer sales in the capital. The rest of the country is also acquiring a thirst for more interesting beers and turning their backs on the blander big brands.

On arriving at the brewery – fortunately ahead of the majority of the crowds – I bumped into Beavertown’s owner Logan Plant chatting with Andy Moffat, owner of Redemption Brewery, which is located about half a mile north of Beavertown. We discussed with incredulity how things have changed so quickly in the craft beer world. Moffat set up Redemption in 2009 and I reckon he was brewery number five in the capital. From that point on there was an explosion in new breweries and Plant calculated he was about number 20 when he set up in 2012. The total now stands around the 80 mark and new names are constantly being added to the roster.

These two breweries are among the earlier generation of craft brewers in the capital and despite the competition from newcomers they are both finding the market growing for their goods and are both on the expansion trail to slake this thirst. Beavertown continues to add brewing capacity and has this year produced about 14,000 hectolitres while Redemption is just about to start brewing from a new brewhouse that significantly ramps up its capabilities. There have been some suggestions from naysayers that the market for craft beer is plateauing and that there is now something of a bubble inflating. I might not have the hard statistics to hand to dispel this but anecdotal evidence suggests that if anything, things are actually accelerating at a cracking pace.

For the past two years Beavertown has held an event called the Rainbow Project at its premises involving 14 breweries working in pairs to create seven collaborative beers that are inspired by the colours of the rainbow. It has led to some interesting beers, with peanut butter stout and key lime pie beer among the more outrageous (and super tasty) productions. The first of these events in September 2014, when all the beers are available to try, was reasonably well attended but the numbers were no greater than are pulled into the average JD Wetherspoon on a Saturday afternoon. 

The second Rainbow Project last September was a wholly different affair with significant crowds turning up to sample the brews on what was a gloriously sunny afternoon. But the numbers were far exceeded by those attending the fourth birthday event, with many people already on site well ahead of the official opening time. Is it any wonder therefore the number of bars focusing on craft beer continues to grow? As well as the places whose bars groan with hand-pumps serving upwards of 70 beers on draught, which include Craft Beer Co, North Bar, Pivovar, BrewDog, and Draft House, I’ve also begun to see the early signs of independent micro-pubs that serve up a very modest range of craft beers in tiny premises. 

With this broadening range of formats rolling out across the country the thirst of drinkers who seek discerning beers is gradually being slaked. It has always been one of BrewDog’s objectives to grow the market for craft beer by opening units in towns almost ahead of obvious demand and now there are other operators joining the party and providing yet more alternatives for craft beer drinkers to partake in the revolution regardless of where they live. 

Beavertown might well be sited close to the epicentre of craft beer but it is clear this is not just a phenomenon limited to the capital and the country’s other major urban metropolises. Demand is now much more far reaching and is touching all areas. For drinkers this is most welcoming and there has never been a better time to drink beer in all its infinite variations. Judging by the incredibly fast growing demand for craft beer, I suspect we are going to see more of the events like those hosted by Beavertown. My only recommendation to those wishing to participate is – get there early because the revolution is waiting for no one.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

The art of the menu by Ann Elliott

What do customers see when they look at a menu? What draws their eye: the prices, the specials, the cocktails? Designing a successful menu is much more than just listing what is on offer, and at Elliotts we have witnessed first-hand the difference a quality menu can make – both in terms of branding and potential earnings. Our latest menu project for a hotel chain delivered a 23% increase in profitability without amending any dish or altering any specification.

Our advice, having worked on menu design and layout for a number of high-profile hospitality brands in the UK, tends to fall within the following categories (not necessarily in this order).

Consider your stock: First things first, what is the menu made of? We start with the message our clients want their menu to convey and how it can best be reflected in the materials used. For a high-end French brasserie for instance, laminated wipe-down menus would be inappropriate. An organic juice bar might bolster its brand image (and save money) by printing on recycled stock. The quality of the physical menu plays an integral role in communicating brand image. 

Think about how customers interact with the menu: Some restaurants hand menus to their customers as they sit down. Others have menus on the table. Wagamama uses its menus as placemats, so customers are constantly in contact with sides, desserts and drinks while they eat. Different approaches benefit different styles of restaurant – consistency in format across a brand though is important.

Build on prime menu real estate: We have read the results of a number of eye-tracking experiments, which have proven, amongst other things, the eye is initially drawn to the top-right of the menu. This is where to put signature dishes, popular foods or dishes with the highest margins – it’s the first place customers look. People then tend to skip to the left hand side of the menu: starters go here.

Show us what you’ve got: Using photographs or images can increase item-specific sales by as much as 30%. This approach certainly does not suit all brands – fast food perhaps but not casual dining (on the whole). Whilst brands may not choose to put photos on their menus, customers are taking photos of their own and sharing them. Plate presentation has to be Instagrammable.

Have a way with words: The more descriptive a menu is, the better its contents will sell. On-trend adjectives such as “pulled” or “beer-battered” can increase sales by up to 27%. Descriptive copy (albeit not too flowery or over the top) leads customers to rate food quality higher. Good copywriting on menu descriptors is really imperative. 

Reduce the focus on money: Focus attention instead on menu descriptions, eg don’t use pound signs in front of prices and don’t list them in a column. This layout is much easier on the eye and means customers choose their meal based on preference rather than price.

Create negative space: An obvious tactic is to put a box around profitable items or promotions. The negative space draws customer attention towards these areas and increases propensity to purchase.

Make the most of recommendations: Our research has shown a “chef’s favourites” section or icon has a demonstrable positive impact on customer choice. 

There is such a thing as too much choice: Studies have shown it is psychologically most effective to include between seven and ten choices per menu section. Customers are more likely to regret their decision when faced with too many choices – fewer options equals increased satisfaction.

Have a benchmark priced product: Then ladder other menu prices up or down from this core price. This helps too when comparing prices versus competitors. 

Menu “science” may be about capitalising on the customer’s biases and preconceptions, but it isn’t about forcing their hand. For me, a great menu is about carefully guiding the customer through the optimum dining experience. You make it easy for them, and they’ll make it easy for you.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of leading sector PR and marketing agency Elliotts – www.elliottsagency.com

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