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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 25th May 2018 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Avoiding menu development mayhem, meet the new power couple, a dawn of new partnerships and health by stealth
Authors: James Hacon, Clive Consterdine and Julian Ross, Ted Schama, and Paul Chase

Avoiding menu development mayhem by James Hacon

Changing a menu seems to be one of the most dreaded activities for a restaurant or foodservice group. At an event I held recently for marketers in the sector almost everyone raised their hands to say it was one of the hardest parts of their job. Having been there myself, supported others in this process and seen inside enough hospitality groups it would seem for the most part it comes down to process – either not having one or people not following it.
 
In one recent case I watched from the sidelines as a client’s four-month process passed the year mark from initial research to the menu going live. Another client told me it is the only part of her job where she almost feels like giving up. Working in the business alongside her brother, she found herself getting caught up in the moment, arguing like they were kids again.
 
I’ve seen many cases where the internal politics and lack of agreement results in people changing their menus less often. That can’t be the answer. The frequency of menu change should be aligned with customer expectation and designed to ensure it works to maintain or increase frequency of visits – by providing a better or changing range as well as creating talkability for social media, marketing messaging and the media.
 
The opportunity around frequency and potential increases is individual by sub-sector and brand. For instance, with a grab-and-go I worked with recently the insight suggested daily or weekly specials would support an increase from one visit a week to two. In a casual dining brand I’ve worked for the opportunity was increasing it from five times a year so seasonal menu changes seemed a better option. The key is to undertake your own research to understand your customers, their habits and decision-making process.
 
With more sensational press headlines, getting it wrong can result in far higher jeopardy than ever before. In the past month alone, there have been stories about McDonald’s adorning its doors with signs about buns containing traces of nuts after a recent recipe change, JD Wetherspoon axing seven supposedly “loved” menu items and Starbucks discounting its gluten-free breakfast sandwich.
 
During my time at a contemporary dining brand, a popular steak dish was removed and the response was unbelievable, with more than a thousand social and email pleas for it to return. So how do you avoid the pitfalls of a dragging process, internal politics or disastrous customer feedback? Here are my top five considerations:
 
Understand your brand
The food is such an integral part of your brand. Understanding what your brand is, what it stands for and how far it should stretch is vital. The best brands will have a clear handle on the guiding principles, positioning, purpose and personality of the brand, which should act as a filter when deciding if menu items fit. A few years ago, many of the mass-market Italian brands went down the path of being homogenised in their offering without a clear personality. The result seemed to see a following of consumer food trends, even when in stark contrast to the brand positioning. The result saw discounting soar, as each competed heavily in the same space with little differentiation.
 
Listen to your customers
Most brands have become much better at listening to their customers in recent years, with great digital tools supporting the collection of customer feedback and offering support via social listening. I’ve seen brands receive hundreds of pieces of feedback per site, per month – real gold dust. Some of the best providers enable people to rate particular dishes, which is a great help. When you start to analyse this alongside your sales data it should give you a superb handle on hero dishes you might want to promote more and dishes you may want to consider changing.
 
Once you’ve analysed this data, it’s time to understand what changes or additions your customers might like to see. Tactics for gaining this insight can be online surveys and discussion forums or face-to-face interviews and focus groups. If you’ve got a highly engaged audience on social media, reaching out via these channels and asking for ideas and inspiration is a superb way of engaging customers too.
 
If the menu change is about attracting new customers, don’t forget to consider how you approach non-customers within your research or you risk developing a menu that works for your existing customers but doesn’t appeal to broader or other groups of consumers.
 
Consumer-testing potential dishes is a vital step that is often misused. Once you have some dishes to test you may want to have multiple variations or specifications to split test, depending on your methodology. For a more ongoing approach you could consider a site where you trial food with customers on a regular basis. A number of key brands have specific sites they use for innovation that have a team well-versed in managing this added responsibility. Wahaca Test Kitchen in Shoreditch and Wagamama Noodle Lab in Soho are examples where a brand has taken it one step further by launching consumer-branded test sites.
 
Market exploration
Understanding what’s happening in the market place among your contemporaries and competitors should help you develop ideas and dishes that are distinct and ensures you’re not missing a trick.
 
We have many excellent research firms in our sector that regularly put out great reports – some of them free in conjunction with sponsors, others paid for. They provide a great overview of consumer and market place trends. With any process I’ve run or supported, I’ve always mined this thoroughly to support the decision-making and development process. A good starting point is to ask your suppliers what research and insight they have. They will often undertake their own projects and also have a view inside many other businesses, giving you a wealth of experience that comes from a place of authority.
 
When we went about changing the children’s menu at Thaikhun a couple of years ago, we spent a lot of time looking at the broader causal dining market and what was happening in the children’s space. Back then we found an uninspiring offer parents accepted but didn’t love. Moving into more shopping centres we saw the opportunity to create a proposition our young customers and their parents would love. With consumer research and innovative thinking the result saw an almost five-times increase in category sales and a couple of great awards for the brand. It also gave us a marketing platform that is still used by the brand today.
 
Get inspired
Mark Twain famously said: “There’s no such thing as plagiarising because there’s no such thing as originality.” While I’d like to think there is still white space left for original thinking, for the most part food development is an evolutionary process that requires inspiration. There are many ways to get inspired. The first place to start is usually online research, searching Google and browsing blogs, Pinterest and Instagram are my usual tactics. Then it’s important to get out from behind a computer and head off on your travels. I host many study tours or safaris each year, here and overseas. Clients love them as a way to get guided and well-researched insight into concepts that provide great inspiration. I love to add an element of surprise, not just viewing restaurant concepts but also retail, food stores and street food, as well as meeting inspirational people from our sector and beyond.
 
Team engagement
To get the right buy-in from the team when the menu finally goes live it’s good practice to actively engage them in the process. The biggest mistake I see, however, is not limiting these to tight parts of the process to ensure it doesn’t slow the project. Too many cooks and all that. I’ve seen successful processes where the wider team are engaged during the understanding and inspiration stages, then re-engaged for dish testing. It’s then vital you communicate and train the new menu in effectively once it’s complete. This should go beyond providing information – look to inspire the team around the new menu, explain the process and highlight the inspiration, linking it to their feedback. It surprises me when I hear teams aren’t given an opportunity to taste the food. Surely this is an absolute minimum to ensure teams can talk enthusiastically about the food itself?
 
The project team should be kept tight with marketing, food and operational representation. As with any project, someone should have overall responsibility for the project delivery against an agreed timescale, with clear milestones. If the key decision-makers aren’t involved in the process daily, have regular update meetings and get their buy-in throughout the process to avoid it delaying projects by going backwards on certain steps. It’s better to over-communicate than under-communicate. This is particularly prevalent when owners, founders or key influencers within the business have a strong food background and therefore strong views.
 
Whichever way you decide to manage your food or drink development process the key, of course, is it should move your proposition and brand forward. In most cases the strategy should be “protect and grow” – keep your existing customers happy while developing parts of the menu that will attract new ones. Be sure not to throw the baby out with the bath water.
James Hacon is managing director of Think Hospitality, which advises multi-site brands on growth, brand and development strategy, as well as investing in early-stage concepts with a bright future
 

Meet the new power couple by Clive Consterdine and Julian Ross

From the Beckhams and Harry and Meghan to Marc Antony and Cleopatra, even Mr Darcy and Elizabeth – the concept of the power couple has long been established. Two parties – both influential in their own right – combine to create an unstoppable force. Together, they’re capable of achieving much more than they ever could have done on their own.
 
We believe the hospitality environment is long overdue an influential duo of its own – cue marketing and IT – the new power couple on the block. Not long ago these unlikely soulmates seemed as compatible as The Joker and Batman. At first glance they may not seem the most suitable partners, with both departments remaining in their individual silos unless released to sort a technical hiccup.
 
The traditional perception depicts marketing people as dreamers – big on ideas but not so hot when it comes to practical implementation – while those working in IT are the geeks in the basement, geniuses with software but lacking understanding of how that could benefit the customer. However, times have changed.
 
Marketing and IT are today’s modern power couple and together create an unstoppable force to meet modern customer expectations. They now work hand-in-hand to conceive, create and deliver customer experiences that have a real impact on performance. IT professionals are no longer “just” enablers, bringing marketing ideas to fruition. Instead, both departments now explore technological possibilities together, mapping out valuable enhancements to the customer journey.
 
By working in partnership, marketing and IT are driving significant change and business growth. The success of their role is no longer just a department responsibility it depends on each other – and, as for the success of the business, that depends on their collective efforts as a team.
 
A recent event hosted by Zonal and Wireless Social celebrated the huge added value a business receives when its marketing and IT departments combine forces. The event was attended by some of the leading power couples in high-street hospitality, including Pho’s head of marketing and PR Libby Andrews and head of IT Zed Callaghan, and Casual Dining Group’s chief customer officer Celia Pronto and chief information officer Michael Shaw as well as Carluccio’s marketing director James Backhouse and head of IT Jon Taylor. The room was abuzz with discussion and debate about current and future trends and the impact these new unions are having on the sector.
 
Pronto highlighted it’s the modern change in attitude that has led to this “marriage made in heaven”. As they say, opposites do attract and, through collaboration and mutual respect, the barriers between the “creative” and the “techies” have been broken down forever.
 
Not surprisingly, the over-riding theme to emerge from the event was single customer focus. The strength of this new power couple lies in the alignment of a key goal – the customer. Conversations aren’t focused solely on launching products or littered with meaningless catchphrases, they are focused on doing what’s best for the customer. In a competitive market place, it’s the customer experience you deliver that truly helps you stand out from your competitors.
Clive Consterdine is sales and marketing director of Zonal, while Julian Ross is chief executive of Wireless Social
 

A dawn of new partnerships by Ted Schama

There has never been a time when partnership has been more crucial. As the current climate unravels, agents, landlords and operators are looking at new ways to work together to ensure success for all. As agents, Shelley Sandzer is increasingly required to think outside the box and be creative. Landlords are also required to be more aware of the market as it stands to attract the very best restaurants.
 
Curating a key destination with a sense of place is the main priority for larger landlords, and they can only succeed by aggressively pursuing the most dynamic operators for their location. For a prime urban area within a notable city, this is likely to be an on-trend and innovative independent operator. For the regions or out-of-town locations, this may be a popular operator in a staple category such as burgers or pizza, or more likely something a little more adventurous. The likely rents presented for these will differ depending on location and, as a result, naturally attract certain operators. Further to this, when considering a tenant for a destination, agents and landlords must work together to ascertain the sustainability of a potential tenant, taking into consideration their longevity and how the brand’s future journey might map out.
 
Where appropriate, it is fair to expect and achieve sizable rents. However, in this climate operators are often discouraged or frightened by large rents and, indeed, sometimes these high figures aren’t entirely warranted. For these situations, agents will find ways to be creative and come up with compromises. This gets exciting brands into great locations, benefiting both the brand and the landlord and reaching the ultimate goal for both parties.
 
Partnership and flexibility is also important when working with international brands that are entering the UK market for the first time. Shelley Sandzer recently worked on UK debuts for high-profile deals such as Duddell’s in London Bridge, BunCo in Monument and Din Tai Fung, which will open its first UK restaurant in Covent Garden later this year. Remaining flexible and working with the restaurateur and landlord in partnership to form a deal ensures these leading tenants don’t pass up an opportunity at the first hurdle. By way of creating compromise, we have seen turnover rents included in deals for some time. However, these are occasionally backed by strong base rents.
 
What if I suggested that to secure the tenant of your dreams, you must completely remove the base rent? You’d probably – and in some instances with good reason – accuse me of devaluing the property and causing major headaches with adjoining tenancy arrangements and so on. On the contrary, I have increasingly seen this approach is exactly what is necessary.
 
Shelley Sandzer is known for attracting trailblazing tenants, many of which are perfect for landlords but wouldn’t consider a favourable opportunity if the property presents itself with perceived or actual risk. Overcoming this hesitance towards perceived risk together is how landlords and operators can excel and achieve their goals. You might argue removing the base rent is an easy route to facilitating a deal, and one almost anyone can do, yet so few take the plunge. Many people perceive the risk as too great. I would argue the opposite – if you don’t act now you might find your estate in a weaker position having lost prime opportunities and possibly lost out to others in the process.
 
Another important relationship to consider is between the operator and the public, which can start to build well before a customer sets foot inside the restaurant. Last month I presented at a conference discussing the Liverpool restaurant property market. I spoke about my aforementioned ideas and received more questions following my speech than ever before, which illustrates appetite and interest is there on the right terms.
 
A highlight for me was listening to a panel discussion featuring Gary Usher, owner of the highly respected Hispi in Didsbury, Sticky Walnut in Chester, Burnt Truffle in Heswall, and Wreckfish in Liverpool, all of which have been assisted by crowdfunding. Generally, I am not a fan of crowdfunding when it comes to restaurants. Invariably they are based on inflated valuations making it difficult for investors to get their money back while the restaurants themselves rarely receive added value from investors assisting their growth.
 
However, Gary took a more innovative approach for his most recent venture, turning crowdfunding into a community-based partnership. The £200,000 crowdfunding for Wreckfish not only enriched Liverpool’s restaurant scene but flipped the traditional format of crowdfunding on its head by giving investors vouchers to dine instead of equity shares. Pre-buying their meal and experience instils a sense of community and partnership, and gives investors pride in being an integral part of that brand’s journey.
 
Although a different tale is often told, the current market presents some great opportunities for exciting and successful restaurant and bar operators in London. The UK still leads the worldwide dining scene and these are just a few examples of how the green shoots of new growth are evolving in the industry. Now is the time of opportunity and, most importantly, the time of partnership.
Ted Schama is joint managing partner of Shelley Sandzer
 

Health by stealth by Paul Chase

Regular Friday Opinion readers will know I regard various attempts by the alcophobes of “public health” to demonise alcohol, restrict its access and raise its price as constituting prohibition by stealth. This approach to promoting so-called public health is spreading far beyond attempts to save us all from the demon drink.
 
This “health by stealth” approach is now being used by all the other curtain-twitching prod-noses, who believe only the wholesale reformulation of food products can save us from becoming a nation of fatties in an “obesity epidemic”. Indeed, it seems to me that for state paternalism to succeed it requires the consumer be kept in the dark about changes to product content and size.
 
Public Health England (PHE) has just released its first report reviewing its sugar reduction scheme. The aim was to reduce sugar content in most foods by 20% by 2020, with a first target of 5% reduction by 2017. It turns out a 2% reduction across the eight categories of biscuits, breakfast cereals, chocolate confectionery, ice cream and lollies, puddings, sweet spreads and sauces, sweet confectionery and yogurts is all that was achieved. There was no sugar content reduction for three of the eight categories and in some cases sugar reduction has been accompanied by calorie increases:
 
Breakfast cereals: sugar down 11%, calories up 2%
Ice creams, sorbets and lollies: sugar down 29%, calories up 29%
Cakes: sugar down 5%, calories up 28%
 
So this is a classic example of what can go wrong when a Soviet-style attempt by a government quango to mandate food content focuses on one ingredient.
 
But the fact is there is a limit to how much you can reduce the sugar content of foods and treats that are designed to taste sweet without the consumer noticing, kicking-up a fuss and refusing to buy the product – just look at the protests on Twitter about the sugar levy on soft drinks for example. Sales of products such as Ribena that have replaced sugar with artificial sweeteners are plummeting. So if you can’t reduce the content, reduce the portion size. This is a process known as “shrinkflation”, and the PHE report gives various examples of its success in this regard. Here are three:
 
Mars UK: In 2013 portion sizes of four standard chocolate bars were reduced – Mars from 58g to 51g, Snickers from 58g to 48g, and Milky Way from 21.9g to 21.5g
In October 2016, Jelly Beans was reduced from 250g to 200g
Benugo: cakes – portion size reduced in eight products – sizes ranging from 70g to 170g reduced to 60g to 150g respectively
 
When did any of these reductions in pack sizes get announced and were prices reduced accordingly? No – but the whole point of shrinkflation, aided and abetted by PHE, is not to tell the consumer. “Health by stealth” will only work if the public doesn’t realise it’s happening. It is ironic that the same people who are campaigning for labels on bottles of beer and wine to contain information about ingredients, calories and sugar content, along with health warnings, most of which aren’t true or are gross exaggerations, don’t want us to be told details of “shrinkflation”.
 
A 5% sugar reduction in year one was always unrealistic – it takes time to reformulate products and gear up your production facility accordingly. But a 20% reduction in sugar content is wholly unrealistic in any event, which is why manufacturers are left with little choice but to reduce portion size.
 
Here’s a question – when did we get asked whether we wanted to see state-sponsored food product reformulation? I don’t recall it being part of any political party manifesto. If government quangos can get away with forcing reformulation of all these categories of food, I invite my licensed retail readers to take a wild guess about where this goes next.
Paul Chase is director of CPL Training and a leading commentator on alcohol and health policy

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