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Fri 31st Mar 2017 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Hospitality over technology; why we need a street revolution; and a dynamic, generous and forward-thinking sector
Authors: Glynn Davis, Atholl Milton and Ann Elliott

Hospitality over technology by Glynn Davis

Hospitality businesses of all descriptions are increasingly being driven by technology. Whether that involves employing tablets to take orders at the table, enabling payments to be made via an app, allowing pre-ordering of foods to be undertaken by smartphones, using analytics from the till to improve operational efficiency, and even using robots to prepare certain food and produce cocktails. Technology is becoming ubiquitous.
 
The question with many of these developments is how exactly do they have an impact on the customer experience? Unless it is an enhancement then it is surely pointless. This got me thinking about why we go to certain restaurants. What is it about specific places that draw us in? When a restaurant opened up in my part of north London it immediately became a favourite place for dinner. Passion e Tradizione (P&T) is a serious rarity in fact because it is one of the few places that has seen me return on a number of occasions in relatively quick succession. Why is that?
 
What does this restaurant have that so many others do not seem to possess? One of the immediate conclusions was its lack of technology in any part of the experience. There was no website where you could investigate its proposition, it lacked any ability to place a reservation online, and there were no social media elements. All that was available when searching on Google to make contact was a phone number. They have always answered the phone, quickly, and for me that trumps so many other forms of communication that people seem to prefer nowadays compared with the good old dog and bone.
 
Its other obvious upside for me is its location – being just down the road. Admittedly, not every restaurant can be located just along the road from my house. But everybody undoubtedly has a local restaurant and what they all provide for their locals is a sense of place and belonging. During each visit there is a high likelihood of bumping into friends, acquaintances and familiar faces you simply acknowledge with a nod. These modest interactions provide a rich layer to the ambience.
 
Now this is such a tough word to define. We could call it the “terroir” of the physical experience that a restaurant provides. For me P&T delivers on some of the key elements in this department – it has soft lighting that makes everybody look good, the owners have employed clever curtains around the room that give a sense of the outside (a not that attractive stretch of road) while providing sufficient privacy, and the fit-out simply uses the natural elements of the building such as exposed brickwork.
 
In addition, they have sensibly placed some bar stools around the counter that fronts the back bar. I think such an arrangement always adds a touch of class and a focal point to a restaurant – in the same way that a fireplace gives equilibrium to a room in a house. Even though the stools are very much squeezed in, the owners are aware of the necessity of making the room work for them. They maximise their 30 covers by constantly reconfiguring the room during a service to accommodate groups of all sizes. The bar stools also accommodate people collecting pizza for takeaway. And they often get sucked into ordering a drink while waiting. This brings us to the restaurant’s food. You can’t go wrong with pizza you might be thinking. So that’s all that P&T is right – a rather safe pizza joint?
 
Yes it does have its share of pizzas on the menu but it also has a great chef in the kitchen who delivers mighty fine Italian dishes that are all priced keenly. Crespelle radicchio and Gorgonzola to start maybe, then duck ragu with fresh pasta, and oxcheek and polenta. It’s not complicated but it highlights the strong points of Italian cuisine, which very much focus on the core ingredients.
 
On my visits, this mixture on the menu inevitably results in children enjoying pizza while their parents choose the other dishes. This ability of the restaurant to cover all the bases ensures that it delivers a more than satisfying experience to every member of the family. As not too great a fan of family-friendly restaurants (because they typically pander too much to the whims of children to the detriment of the experience of adults) I’m simply after restaurants that accommodate all parties. In doing so I believe this is what makes a restaurant truly valuable to its local community.
 
And this is exactly what will make some restaurants successful. P&T opened up in a bit of London where other operators would maybe not have been as brave to do so. But each time I have been into the establishment it has been fully booked. Being a part of the local community and delivering a pretty flexible offer, which appeals to a broad mix of people, will arguably always be more valuable than deploying a load of technology. Offering warm hospitality will surely always be the definition of a successful restaurant business. That’s my hope anyway.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends 

Why we need a street revolution by Atholl Milton 

Today’s ambitious restaurateur faces a dilemma – do they risk opening a new site in the headwinds of business rates and Brexit, or perhaps launch a home delivery service to reach new customers? Both are expensive and tricky ways to expand and that’s why more independent and chain restaurants are winding back the clock to a more traditional way of reaching customers – hitting the roads with a street food stall or truck.

In 2013 I launched my own food truck selling South African speciality bunny chow (that’s hollowed out bread filled with curry). Back then, a street food truck was seen as a stepping stone, a chance to trial your menu before braving the outlay of a bricks and mortar site. Imagine a Darwinian “evolution of a restaurant” diagram from kitchen table to mega-chain – street food might be the second or third step.

Fast forward four years and the trend has reversed. Established brands are returning to the streets as a low cost way to reach new customers and market their restaurants. London independents Patty & Bun, Constancia and Bodeans all have branded street food trucks whizzing between street markets, private events and the festival circuit. Bigger names have also dabbled in street food units. In 2014 Jamie Oliver launched a mobile van serving pulled pork to fans at Bath rugby stadium. Wahaca’s brightly coloured Citroen H-van was a pioneer in bringing restaurant food outdoors.

So why is the restaurant industry hitting the road? When I started in the business 20 years ago, expansion was simple – if you wanted more revenue you opened more sites. Today, physical growth is an increasingly risky game. Business rates have rocketed and who knows what impact the next two years of Brexit negotiations will have on consumer wallets. The overheads of even one underperforming site will have the accounts department knocking on your door.

There’s also been a revolution in how diners perceive restaurants. As with the retail industry, they are now expected to be multi-channel. Digitally driven services such as home delivery and click and collect have now got their mitts on the budget that was once ring-fenced for new premises. A mobile unit solves this problem by providing a new customer touch point, or “channel”, at the fraction of the price of a new opening. It allows a brand to trial multiple locations, audiences and even new cities. The marketing value is enormous. Street food’s passion speaks to experience-hungry millennials whose Instagramming will do your advertising for you.

But, and there is always a “but”, the road to street trading is not without speed bumps. The biggest challenge I found when touring my bunny chow truck was finding somewhere to trade. Yes, the battle was lost for want of a parking space! After building a cool truck and great concept I thought my journey was going to be a simple one. I soon discovered street food trading is fraught with archaic bureaucracy and cliques. Public markets are stymied by public authorities’ inability to modernise, and private markets have become destination places with a limited rotation of vendors. These are great destination spots for fixed tenants, but not for the brand that wants to tour.
 
This led me to found StreetDots, a platform that connects street food traders with space to sell. The idea is a street food truck should be free to trade in south London on a Monday and Birmingham on a Thursday if they so wish. I started the business to solve the single problem of finding somewhere to trade, now that idea has been transformed into a mission to modernise an entire sector.
 
Our goal is to encourage public and private landowners to look at space differently and open it to street food traders of all types, startups and established chains. Luckily “place making” and “enlivenment” are property industry buzzwords and we are seeing more and more land partners open to hosting lunchtime, evening and even breakfast food hubs. In London these days it seems you’re never more than a falafel’s throw from some great outdoor cooking. Restaurant brands have cottoned on to this and the first movers out on to the streets are benefiting.
 
Innovation has always come from the streets (how many of your menu items are influenced by street food?) With critical mass we can turn this into a revolution.
Atholl Milton is co-founder of street food trading platform StreetDots – www.streetdots.co.uk
 

A dynamic, generous and forward-thinking sector by Ann Elliott

Next year I will have been working in this sector for 35 years and, in all that time, it has never not been enjoyable. Of course, there are things that could have gone better (owning five leased pubs wasn’t easy) but overall, it’s just been brilliant and I wouldn’t have wanted to work in any other sector because:
 
It is generous
There are many amazing individuals in this sector who are generous with their time, advice and expertise. From a personal perspective, Debbie Hewitt (The Restaurant Group), Luke Johnson (Risk), Steve Richards (Casual Dining Group) and Mike Tye (Moto) all immediately come to mind. They have all been happy to share their knowledge and learning without asking for anything in return. You only have to sit in a Propel conference, as I did a few weeks ago, to appreciate how delighted speakers are to help others by passing on lessons from their experience. I learned a lot from Paul Hemming (from AlixPartners) and Nick Pring (of Urban Pubs and Bars) and am always grateful that those who are so busy find time to write and present a session for the benefit of others.
 
It is innovative
The spirit of innovation is quite extraordinary in this sector and it’s always looking for different and better ways to do things. It’s always willing to try new technology such as Wireless Social, Collins, and Flyt. It innovates with new design (see the new Ask design for example), new ordering styles (Inamo) and new food (try Strut & Cluck, Kiln, Temper to name but a few). And on a different scale, but in the same vein, Kerb and everything Jonathan Downey does.
 
It supports the entrepreneur
I love the trio of Dorian Waite, Harald Samuelson and Roberto Moretti (working with Active) and the support they are giving to new entrepreneurs like Celia from Eat Poke. Or the help key individuals (such as Karen Jones and James Horler) have given to Laura from Corazon. Bababoom is another concept to have benefited from the input of those with experience in the sector. ETM has supported the phenomenally successful Bounce. Brandon Stephens has been backed by a considerable number of industry experts to launch REVL. It’s an industry that wants others to succeed, not fail.
 
It does not accept defeat
Phil Urban has done a fantastic job with Mitchells & Butlers. He has brought in talented new people and inspired those who have been there some time. It has refreshed old concepts, driven successful ones, such as Miller & Carter, and is now launching new concepts again after a break of some time. The Restaurant Group has a task on its hands as it knows but the new management team there is absolutely on the case and determined to restore Frankie & Benny’s back to its former glories. I know I have mentioned her many times before but Kate Nicholls from the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers absolutely personifies this attribute as an individual in her drive to challenge legislation that could damage the sector.
 
It thinks big
The vision Simon Townsend had at Ei Group in developing and launching the "managed experts" concept is just brilliant. Hippo Inns (with Rupert Clevely), Frontier Pubs (with Food & Fuel), Hunky Dory Pubs (with Oakman), Marmalade Pub Company (with Marylebone Leisure Group) and Mash Inns (with Laine Pub Company) – with more to come – are all bringing underinvested pubs back to life with a vengeance and it’s great to see. Greene King’s audacious bid for Spirit has paid off. Graphite’s purchase of New World Trading Company and the vision of Tim, Jeremy and Chris saw it sweep the board at the recent Publican awards. In contract catering, Sodexo has spent two years implementing sweeping change in its bid to dominate the world in integrated facilities management. And I love what Kevin Bacon is doing with Urban Legacies and what Martin Wolstencroft is doing with Arc – truly inspirational.
 
It is the most wonderful, dynamic, generous and forward-thinking sector, and I am delighted by it every day.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of leading PR and marketing company Elliotts – www.elliottsagency.com

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