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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 18th Dec 2015 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Why change is the only constant, still life in fine dining, and the difference in service between shops and restaurants
Authors: Kate Nicholls, Glynn Davis, and Ann Elliott

Why change is the only constant by Kate Nicholls

They say that change is the only constant – and that has certainly proved the case over the last year.

In sport, in politics and across the sector, this has been a year of surprises and upsets. This time last year, who could have predicted that Jeremy Corbyn would lead the Labour Party, that it would be a majority Conservative government introducing a National Living Wage or that England would crash out of the Rugby World Cup? Well, perhaps the last one.

And this has been one of the most turbulent, dynamic and creative periods for the sector. Hardly a week goes by without a rash of new openings and new concepts coming to the market, while existing brands and pubs in particular have continued to evolve.

There has been little short of an eating out revolution over the past year and the latest figures from the CGA Growth Monitor highlight this. For the first year in a decade, we have stabilisation and even a small amount of growth across licensed hospitality as a whole.

There are now 124,000 licensed hospitality outlets and net growth of 0.6% year-on-year. Small – but after a decade on consolidation in pubs, hotels and nightclubs – significant. But we have seen 5% restaurant growth with 1,300 net new sites. Two thirds of towns have seen growth overall and four in five have seen growth in food numbers.

And this is far from confined to London and the M25 bubble. Yes, growth in capital is impressive – up 2.9% on last year – but the industry is also in rude health in unexpected areas. Coventry, Stockton, Stockport have all seen strong growth. But others in terminal decline – the brewery heartland of Burton for example as well as Oldham and Rotherham.

This explosion in restaurant numbers has led to inevitable concerns about capacity – is supply outstripping demand – and competition – have consumers moved onto the next big thing?

This year also saw the emergence of new going out experiences, the ramifications of which will be felt for a while to come. Street food, box parks and night markets have all changed the way in which many young people go out. Across London this summer, clubbing gave way to eating. StreetFeast and sites like it offered a late-night, edgy, experiential vibe, which is not easily captured by mainstream – but it will fundamentally change the way in which young people engage with eating out. So too will the introduction of Starbucks Reserve – a coffee shop with a meet and greet and table service which also sells alcohol – challenging fast-casual and pub concepts

But there are other market disruptors out there too. The adoption this year of an Act enshrining statutory regulation of tied pubco leases and an option to choose a Market Rent Only will not only fundamentally alter the leased and tenanted model, it will have wider ramifications across the whole of the property market as the regulation bleeds into commercial leases and introduces a shorter term perspective to what has been a long return on investment model. With the detail still out for consultation, it is by no means certain what the outcome will be, but it is clear it will usher in a further period of turbulence – which could yet foster creativity and entrepreneurship, if we get it right.

And so to regulation. No review of the year would be complete without a mention of the highs and lows of the Chancellor’s three financial statements, which shows the government might support but doesn’t understand our sector as well as it thinks it does. Yes we had a third beer duty cut and a promise of once in a generation reform of rates in the March budget, but by the second summer budget, we were faced with a new National Living Wage, an apprenticeship levy and no mention yet of retail rate relief. The challenge remains to engage with the government and help it deliver its ambitions without adversely impacting on job creation and investment.

So if change is the only constant it looks as though we will be living with that constant for a while longer.
Kate Nicholls is chief executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers

Why there’s still life in fine dining by Glynn Davis

One of the pleasures of eating out is easing myself into a comfortable seat and resting my arms on a thick soft linen tablecloth. The level of comfort delivered by this simple table adornment is way beyond the physical simplicity of the object.

This might sound like the uttering of an anorak but I’m fully committed. One memorable tablecloth experience took place many years ago over lunch at the grand Connaught Hotel in the former Grill Room (when Michel Bourdin presided over the kitchen). After each course the top cloth was removed to reveal a sparkling clean starched replacement below. At each of the two changes, the waiter would item-by-item lift the cutlery and glasses over onto the new cloth as the old one was rolled up sausage-like before removal.

This was pure theatre and the fact I can so readily recall it after almost 30 years suggests it has left an indelible mark in my rich tapestry of restaurant-going. It signified that the Grill Room had certain standards to maintain and that clean tablecloths (no brushing of the cloth after each course in this place) were an important part of how it distinguished itself.

What tablecloths also deliver is a softening of the acoustics in a room. It has become a real blight in many dining rooms where the ricocheting of sound massively detracts from the ability to simply converse. Far too many restaurants have put style over substance and stripped their dining rooms of all fabrics in order to give clean minimalist lines but at the price of the comfort of their customers.

When I describe linen table-clothed dining rooms I fear that for many people I am painting a picture of “fine dining”. Unfortunately this is a beast that many commentators, critics and restaurateurs would like to see dead and buried.

Its death has been called far too many times for my liking over the past few years as it has fallen victim to the current trend for more a relaxed eating out experience. The story people are being fed by the media is that customers are not allowed to enjoy themselves within fine dining establishments. Surely some mistake – is the customer not the boss?

I’d argue that such negative views of fine dining are rather outdated and that even the more Michelin-rich establishments have moved away from overt stuffiness that led many waiters to lose themselves up their own rear ends in years gone by.

Things have thankfully moved on and the likes of Jason Atherton with his Pollen Street Social restaurant have managed to deliver Michelin-star standard food combined with a more relaxed atmosphere – including decent quality tablecloths. This is one of many such top-notch places that deliver fine dining but not at the cost of fun.

It does rather make me groan when I read views such as those expressed by the chef director of STK who advocates ditching fine dining in favour of “vibe dining” (yes, it’s a new one to me too), which includes employing a DJ who apparently “reads the room” to determine the genre of music that will work best for the customers.

I’d suggest this is not a replacement for fine dining but is a radical alternative. For many people it is not a choice between one or the other because I suspect it is two very different groups who frequent these diverse ends of the restaurant spectrum.

The one obvious difference between the two camps will undoubtedly be age. DJs suggest a rather younger audience (albeit affluent since spending per head averages £80 at STK in London) with some in the Generation Y grouping no doubt in evidence.

In its recent report “Eating Out – Today and Tomorrow” by Sacla it is reckoned that the Gen Y’ers group is playing a serious part in the “deregulation of life”. Unlike older generations this 18-34 year-old grouping have limited awareness – never mind deference – of traditional social norms. They have supposedly been born free of many of the social constraints that might have limited their parents and grandparents. They are therefore, says the Sacla report, willing to embrace the opportunities and challenges resulting from a “deregulated” society.

Translating this into the restaurant world means they demand: the removal of any stuffiness, a relaxing of dress codes; and the introduction of more sharing plates styles of eating. This is all good and I believe diners of all ages are also keen to embrace such advances.

But I’m afraid it also means that there has been a King Herod-like chucking out of linen tablecloths from restaurants across the land. Many of these places would no doubt have been classed as fine dining establishments.

In reality the tablecloth is not an outdated component in a dining room. It is instead maybe the fine dining tag that has lost its value and could be deterring diners from frequenting some of our most accomplished dining rooms. Either way, keep your hands off my beloved tablecloth.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

The difference in service between shops and restaurants by Ann Elliott

Last week’s Xmas gift shopping was just a nightmare and convinced me yet again (not that I really needed to be convinced) to shop online wherever and whenever possible. More than that though, it reminded me how great service makes you feel – and that feeling doesn’t happen in very many places in shopping centres. Those who come into our sector from retail must be really exceptional to be successful. The two service philosophies are quite different.

First stop Zara. Regardless of location, their staff are generally totally disinterested, talk amongst themselves, ignore customers and seem to lack any customer engagement skills whatsoever. They give the impression they are doing you a big favour shoving your clothes into a bag, taking your payment without looking at you once and leaving the tags on your clothes so you are stopped at the door – perhaps they get points for making that happen. They really could not care less and are certainly not inclined to improve the experience. In fact I bet they don’t even know what the word means. I know I am not your target market but at least try to be pleased I am shopping with you.

Next stop HMV. Four people behind the counter. One doing stuff, which was patently more important than serving customers, one chatting with another member of staff (who looked too frightened to step behind the till in case they had to work), one talking in depth to a customer about a DVD and one left to deal with a queue of ten. Oh, and then joy of joys, a customer just pushed into the front of the queue and was served. Seems he was a member of staff and therefore far more important than anyone stuck in the queue trying to juggle piles of DVDs and CDs. No wonder John Lewis is storming.

I contrasted this awful retail experience with my recent dining out occasions. For instance, the staff at The Grazing Goat in New Quebec Street are really delightful and charming. Service is quick and professional (and the food is great). I had breakfast meetings twice there last week and they were just as good on both occasions.

The best experience by far at another breakfast meeting was at Dishoom in Kingly Street. This place just leaves me dumbstruck to be honest as the design is absolutely wonderful – so different and refreshing. When my guest left, I asked if I could just stay there drinking chai and working. The waitress looked at me and said: “You don’t even have to ask me that question – of course you can.” As a customer you do need to show discretion and leave when the place gets full but what a fantastic, customer facing, attitude to have.

Without doubt the Chiltern Firehouse has just awesome service. It not stuffy or pretentious but you do feel special from the moment they open your taxi door for you. What’s nice is that the service is the same whether you are having a meal or just enjoying a drink. It helps that it’s such a fantastic place with great food – the team do have something quite special to work with. Aubaine and Big Easy both delivered fantastic experiences in the last few weeks.

Why the difference in approach in service levels between where I have shopped and where I have eaten? Maybe it’s the fact that seats in a restaurant can only be sold once whilst product stays on the shelves and it’s not the problem of the team whether they sell it or not. Perhaps there is a different sales perspective. And perhaps negative comments about hospitality businesses on social media count for more than negative comments about Zara or HMV. If this was the case then John Lewis wouldn’t care either, but they do. At the end of the day it must all be about the culture of the leadership teams in each business. And I know which I appreciate more as a customer.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of leading sector public relations and marketing firm Elliotts – www.elliottsagency.com

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