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Fri 22nd Mar 2019 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Top five trends affecting restaurant investment, the value of learning, information overload, support through employment, and out of the mouths
Authors: James Hacon, Jill Whittaker, Ann Elliott, Brigid Simmonds and Mark Marshall

Top five trends affecting restaurant investment by James Hacon

Earlier this month a large delegation of British restaurateurs, investors, landlords and consultants crossed the North Sea to attend the sixth annual Global Restaurant Investment Forum, joining 400 leaders from 43 countries around the world. The event is one of the few truly global events in our sector, with a line-up of speakers covering every major region of the world and content spanning the Americas, APAC and EMEA. It was the fifth time I had joined the event, as a speaker and emcee, this time with colleagues from Think Hospitality also taking to the stage.

The event has the distinct angle of being focused on investment rather than operations, which provides a vastly different viewpoint. It becomes far more focused on creating value, the trends that have an impact on investment decisions, and the business of hospitality. At the end of each day I have the unenviable task of distilling the views and presentations of 30 speakers into ten minutes of takeaways. On day one it was even more of a challenge to keep the attention of an almost packed audience as I had to follow the iconic and abundantly charismatic Marco Pierre White.

Here are the key trends affecting restaurant investment that emerged from the event.

Convenience versus experience
Regarding eating out of home trends, there is continued divergence between convenience and experience. On one hand grab-and-go, delivery and small-format kiosk operations continue to drive considerable investment, with fast food and fast casual the hospitality market’s quick-growing segments. Conversely, at the same time experiential-based dining and leisure activities are leading the way as footfall drivers, albeit with much higher barriers to entry. Food halls are becoming a culmination of both elements in one location, being another titan trend spreading throughout the world. While individual outlet styles and concepts came under considerable scrutiny during the event, with a number having their fad or novelty status questioned, it’s clear to see the overall trend sticking around for the long term – begging the question, how much more will it erode the full-service model?

Transformative technology
Consultants at the event shared many examples of robotics when revealing their visions of the future, using the case studies of Boston MIT’s restaurant Spyce and Eatsa in San Francisco – which is reportedly having problems – alongside several restaurants in Japan that feature Star Wars-inspired robots delivering meals to table. The view that this could be our sector’s future was met with scepticism from restaurateurs and other leaders in the room. There seems to be general acceptance this type of technology will play a considerable role in transforming the sector, particularly around removing manual and repetitive tasks, but it’s unlikely to replace the human element in the short to medium term. Instead, we will see technology come to the fore with regards to enhancing the guest journey, potentially changing the pricing strategy of some restaurants with surge-based models (like the travel industry) and, for all our sakes, let’s hope we finally streamline the payment pain-point in a meaningful way. Voice and 5G are the two technological developments to watch out for in the next few years, with voice-activated equipment and customer ordering likely to take hold, while 5G will enable better implementation of beacon and sensor-based technology, giving operators more access to real-time data. 

Non-traditional growth opportunities
In the past, growing a restaurant brand was all about expanding and opening new sites, improving brand visibility. With many traditional investors seeing the well-publicised failures of big brands in the US and UK, there is scepticism this will be the model for the future. Instead, we will see slower, more controlled scaling accompanied by other brand and revenue-building initiatives. Many alternative-format and non-traditional growth options were introduced during the event to negate, supplement or reduce the need for traditional investment options. These included the low entry point created by food halls, with much of the fit-out provided; dark or cloud kitchens where operators can sell via a delivery-only platform, reducing teams and overheads; membership clubs and shared workspaces contracting out or partnering with entrepreneurs on their food options; hotel owners increasingly turning to external restaurateurs to operate their assets; experiential leisure outlets with food spaces to let; supper clubs; street food markets; and digital-based subscription lunch models. What’s fascinating to see is it’s not only startups or entrepreneurs playing in this space – Wagamama is launching its own grab-and-go brand, Azzurri Group launched fast-casual pizza concept Radio Alice, and many brands including YO! Sushi are operating in food hall concepts such as Boxpark. 

People challenges
No matter where speakers or delegates in the room were from, the people challenge was both real and prolific. In less economically developed parts of the world where the cost of labour is lower, the employment challenge is about training and skills, while in more economically developed areas the challenges are recruitment and retention. There is a need to champion hospitality as a career of choice, with changing views towards economic migration in some regions having a direct impact. There was much talk about the positives of our industry, such as the low barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and the ability for quick promotion, but speakers repeatedly talked about a need to promote hospitality as a career of choice, improve our workplaces and start building models where we can pay higher wages. Further to the earlier mention of technology, it was suggested we should invest in technological development to reduce the need for manual and repetitive tasks, letting people concentrate on the human factor and highly skilled tasks. No matter where you are in the world, leaders see people as the most important factor to successfully operating hospitality businesses. Many are trying to overcome this challenge by looking at labour-light models, focusing on simplicity of operation.

Putting the planet first
Consumers are increasingly aware of the world we live in and how their actions have an impact on the planet. They want to know what businesses are doing to protect the planet and enhance the lives of the people they employ. For the most part business leaders are sitting up and listening, with several schemes and initiatives highlighted at the forum, from reducing food waste and improving the culture in kitchens to better sourcing of products and moving to plastic-free alternatives throughout the supply chain. Chef Raymond Blanc, speaking on behalf of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, told the audience there were no excuses for not doing “what is right”. He highlighted the opportunity technology presents in this transformation but also commended the work of many in the sector – highlighting even the largest players such as McDonald’s were making big strides. Sustainability shouldn’t be a side scheme for press purposes but truly embedded in businesses. Many initiatives can reduce costs with the right upfront investment. 
James Hacon is managing director of Think Hospitality, which advises multi-site brands on growth and brand and development strategy as well as investing in early-stage concepts with a bright future

The value of learning by Jill Whittaker

The way our children are taught is changing. If you visit a primary school you might hear children talk about their “marvellous mistakes”. Rather than hiding when they get things wrong, they are taught to celebrate it.

Why? Because our brains grow, change and become more intelligent with effort. We need to try new or more challenging things to improve, but this means we are also more likely to get things wrong. By teaching our children to embrace errors and analyse them, they can see how to get it right next time. 

As adults we would do well to adopt the same approach to our careers. Fear of failure can put people off embracing new ideas or pushing boundaries. There is no doubt accessibility to the internet has already made a huge difference – we can look up ingredients, check orders and find new customers at the touch of a button. 

People today have a thirst for knowledge and they are hungry for more information. This is good news for the hospitality sector as a whole but how can individual businesses instil this growth mindset across their organisation? One way is to adopt a culture of learning. 

For anyone new to a company there will always be an initial learning phase but what about those who are more established in their careers or who are, in fact, on the senior management team? Learning and training shouldn’t stop the longer you’ve been in your career, particularly in an industry like ours that is continually developing and changing. 

Creating a culture of learning within businesses has many benefits – employees are more likely to be motivated, have an improved skill set and develop quickly in their roles. It also opens up career paths within a business and the industry as a whole – something particularly key in a sector with an ongoing skills shortage. 

One of the most effective ways to promote a culture of learning is through a robust training programme, including apprenticeships. Our research shows taking on an apprentice has benefits well beyond simply gaining a new member of staff. Hospitality professionals consider improving personal development for employees (63%), tackling the skills shortage in the industry (58%) and upskilling their workforce (44%) as the top three advantages of apprenticeships. According to data from the National Apprenticeship Service, 92% of companies that have taken on apprentices believe it leads to a more motivated and satisfied workforce, with 80% seeing a significant increase in employee retention.

Apprenticeships aren’t just a route into the industry, with qualifications starting at entry level and going all the way up to degree and management, there are development and learning opportunities for all ages, roles and businesses. I have already seen a fundamental shift away from what used to be a know-it-all culture in favour of a learn-it-all culture, with people choosing on-the-job learning over classroom-based options. In the hospitality industry, our research shows more than four-fifths (86.4%) of professionals think apprenticeships are an effective route to a hospitality career. 

Hospitality is a highly entrepreneurial industry – the sky’s the limit and people can progress quickly and at a young age. However, to enable people to do this and flourish we need to ensure the tools are in place to provide them with sound learning and development opportunities, not only to help them in their career journeys but protect the future of the sector.

To ensure a vibrant future, hospitality businesses should encourage all employees to seek opportunities to grow and develop. What they learn not only helps where they work to thrive but also grows the skillset of our entire industry. 

For more information on HIT Training and the variety of hospitality apprenticeships available, visit https://hittraining.co.uk/ 
Jill Whittaker is managing director of HIT Training

Information overload by Ann Elliott

As far as I can see most operators and many suppliers are overwhelmed by far too much information – a lot of it irrelevant. Generally, their issues aren’t about having too little data, they are about having the right data and having the time and space to know what do with it to improve their business.

They have every bit of sales information they could wish for from their own till systems. They can buy as much market data as they need. They can run brand-tracker programmes, mystery diner activities, social media analysis, employee satisfaction surveys, quick (or long) customer surveys, Google Analytics – the list goes on. They also encounter an endless daily stream from random sources of interesting stuff that may, or may not, be relevant to their business.

It can all become a bit of a blur, a repetitive task in which it’s often impossible to work out what’s a trend that needs acting on or what’s a mere blip. It can be in disparate places, impossible to verify (or cross tabulate) and different data sources may tell vastly different stories. 

Sometimes the information is so bland and generic – “Generation Z spend hours on their phone every day” – it’s impossible to know how to apply it to a business and its own particular circumstances in any meaningful way. After a while, constant reporting on the same issue can seem like wallpaper – top-line figures may fail to illuminate and it can be impossible find the time or resources to get into the real data.

Sometimes when listening to top-level presentations, especially on customer behaviour, I want to keep asking “why”? Why do customers behave, think or act in that way and how can we change how they behave, act or think? I want to get inside the heads of real customers but the data doesn’t always allow that. Actually, scrub that, it’s not just about the data – sometimes it’s just about asking the right question in the first place to allow for that sort of scrutiny. 

It’s relatively easy to start with data and ask: “What is this telling me?” It’s far more time-consuming and taxing to start with: “What do we actually need to know so we can act on it and, as a result, make the business more successful?” The latter approach saves time in the long run because its targeted, bespoke and relevant to specific business issues.

Insight is at the heart of all we do as an agency, be that strategic planning, concept and brand development, demand generation, marketing planning, content creation or customer communication. It has to be, otherwise business decisions end up being made simply on the basis of opinion and it’s usually the opinion of the most senior person around a table that wins the day – and we all know that isn’t always the right one to go with! 

Our best briefs are the ones that start with specific questions, for example: “This is the problem we need to solve or the opportunity we want to explore, what is the best way to do that?” Of course we use existing data from a variety of sources to answer these questions but we have to filter out the noise and only use what is relevant. Then it’s critical to supplement the data with bespoke quantitative and/or qualitative data to ensure our insights and recommendations are completely relevant and, importantly, enable the business to make the right decisions to guarantee success. 

One of the most important roles of marketing is to “put the customer’s hat on”, presenting insight from them (and on them) in an objective, irrefutable and clear way. To do this marketers have to start with the end in mind, be clear on what they have to know and ruthless in cutting out irrelevant information – for the sake of the business and their own sanity.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of Elliotts, the leading integrated marketing agency in the hospitality and leisure sector – www.elliottsagency.com

Support through employment by Brigid Simmonds

This week I had the privilege of attending the first conference by Only a Pavement Away (OAPA) – an inspiring charity that helps homeless people, ex-prisoners and military veterans find work in hospitality. 

Greg Mangham got the inspiration to set up OAPA after walking through Covent Garden one night with his wife, who said all the homeless people they saw couldn’t possibly be “unemployable”. She challenged him to do something about it, and OAPA was born. 

OAPA’s ambition is to employ 500 homeless people in the hospitality industry within its first year. Greg’s mantra is “through employment people gain stability” and, if you find them the right job, they will be loyal for life. The name Only a Pavement Away comes from the fact we are all just a pavement away from seeing homelessness and the crime and loneliness associated with it. We are also just a pavement away from cafes, bars and hotels crying out for staff.

The statistics surrounding homelessness and unemployment make difficult reading – 12,000 offenders commit their first offence while homeless. On average, there are 5,000 rough sleepers in the UK each night – 7% of the homeless are ex-services, 33% are ex-offenders. Offenders cost the taxpayer on average £46,000 and average life expectancy on the streets is just 46 years old. While 92% of service personnel leave the services in good health, almost half (48%) are unemployed six months later. A third of ex-offenders have nowhere to stay when they leave prison but say they do to ensure they are released, while one-quarter (25%) of the population has a criminal record.

Just imagine what a difference hospitality businesses – whether pubs, bars, cafes or restaurants – could make if we opened our doors to this untapped talent pool? OAPA plays a key role in enabling this by acting as a conduit between charities such as Crisis, Centre Point and The Clink, and hospitality businesses or sector representatives such as ourselves. It helps overcome potential hurdles by ensuring prospective employees come through a charity or association prepared to continue their support into employment. 

As UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls rightly points out, the hospitality sector faces critical recruitment and retention challenges. I firmly believe schemes such as OAPA will help us make up the shortfall combined with our focus on staff well-being and best-in-class employment packages and flexibility.

Companies that have taken on OAPA candidates are already seeing the benefits. Abi Dunlop, of Young’s, spoke passionately at the conference regarding the benefits the business has seen from the scheme, which far outweigh the additional time and investment. The role of the charities in providing ongoing support to candidates is key, Abi said, but as a sector we need to keep our side of the bargain by showing candidates the opportunities we provide. 

Even more important than the talent pool it opens up for our sector is the fact OAPA is helping vulnerable people in real need of support. Just how vulnerable some of the people in the OAPA network are was illustrated by former journalist Ed Mitchell, whose marriage fell apart and, combined with an alcohol problem, resulted in him living on the streets. His story of how he came through the situation with help from charities was touching and inspirational.

Tim Foster, of Yummy Pubs, another pub operator that works with OAPA, summed it up best – the success stories of those who come from OAPA far outweigh the failures and, at the end of the day, people are at the core of our businesses so it’s vital we embrace them. OAPA is a charity we should all support, and many are doing so already. There will be challenges to make it work but we all need to remember the brilliant employee we’ll have at the end and the wider benefits of providing vulnerable people with stability and support through employment. 
Brigid Simmonds is chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association 

Out of the mouths by Mark Marshall

As this is my first Friday Opinion article I thought I’d check the precise definition of “opinion” before writing a word – “a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge”. The [fact] an opinion doesn’t need to be driven by fact or knowledge gives me great confidence about the words that follow as I am often at my best arguing from a position of ignorance.  

“A view not necessarily based on fact or knowledge” is a lesson we all have to learn because a customer doesn’t always know or mean what he or she is actually saying – and to listen and blindly act is a dangerous thing to do. 

I learnt the hard way many moons ago. I was a rookie running a customer focus group for a motorway services operator garnering the opinions of a dozen or so tough truck drivers. During the course of our conversation I touched on salad bars – at the request of the client – as in “would they like to see them”? To my surprise they unanimously said “yes”. This is it, I thought, the client is going to be so impressed at this breakthrough. They were. They put in a salad bar – and it sank like a stone – and yes, the truckers were lying. Why, when you think about it, would they swap sausage and mash for leaves?

They were basically saying “yes" to salad bars because it made them sound “healthier” – modern men so to speak – so let me urge you to be careful when it comes to what customers say. This may sound odd from a chap who spends his life doing just that but there’s a growing tendency for more and more people to say the “right thing” – mostly for PC reasons and wanting to be seen as “on trend” – without actually meaning it. You need to particularly watch out for this when you see an opinion spike that goes against a longer-term trend. 

At a time when there’s noise from review site feedback urging this, that and the other, the noise for change/action can be deafening. However, the same rules apply more than ever – think it through, use your head, probe more if required and look around you at what else is going on in the market. In fact, in many ways observing what customers do is more robust than listening to what comes out of their mouths.

This is why, for example, I am cautious about everyone leaping on the vegan bandwagon. It’s only 1% of the UK population making one hell of a racket about their cause. It’s a noble cause but doesn’t mean we have to rush to add vegan meals to the menu. Taking care of the other 99% of the population is time much better spent, wouldn’t you agree? Just like those truckers, don’t get diverted by things people don’t mean. Menu research is particularly dangerous. Guests will happily say “yes” to all suggestions for menu enhancement and, before you know it, you’re left with a huge, hard-to-deliver menu while pie, burger, and fish and chips are the items that continue to fly off the shelves.  

So listen – absolutely listen – but never forget you work in this business, you’re experienced, and you know more about your brand than your customers do.
Mark Marshall is managing director of Service Monitor

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