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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 27th May 2016 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Rags to riches, learnings from Chicago, and Tim Bacon’s legacy
Authors: James Hacon, Kate Nicholls, and Ann Elliott

Rags to riches by James Hacon

We all know the sunny ethos of the USA, the so-called American Dream, the “green light” that beckoned Jay Gatsby ever forward, whereby the opportunity for prosperity and success through hard work is a cultural underpinning (and blockbuster films can be made about you once you’ve made it!). You’ll probably be equally aware of the outright belief many Americans have that they just do everything bigger and better.

Having just returned from my third consecutive trip to Chicago with Propel and the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR), I can tell you for many this dream is as still as strong as ever, with an unbelievable number of new businesses having launched in the city compared with this time last year. The standout story from the city is the unprecedented growth of the Fulton Market district, just a few miles from the centre of the centre on the West Loop. Over the past two years the area has undergone a complete transformation from an outer city suburb to one of the hippest neighbourhoods of the city, with much of the credit going to the audacious development of Soho House Chicago at its centre.

As you’d expect, Soho House Chicago was a real standout for many on the trip. The 12th house in the collection, it launched in August 2014 with great press and an unprecedented amount of attention, as you might expect. As has become the signature for Nick Jones and his team, the venue has really hit the mark in creating a series of spaces that come together, honouring its history. The site includes much more in the way of non-member spaces than other sites I’ve visited, with a large lobby bar and lounge area (that is about to be extended), an intimate traditional Chicago-style bar called the Fox and Chicken Shop, which many of you will know through its intensive London roll-out. Membership areas were equally, if not more impressive, with a stunning poolside terrace and fine-dining outlet, “designed to be somewhere you can bring your granny and grandad, without the lounge style seating” we were told. In research I’ve done post-trip, it’s been amazing to see the initiatives the company are involved with, really engaging in the community. For me, the coolest is giving over space in its car park to host a regular farmers market, with free access to local residents.

You’ll be pleased to know it’s not just the big boys living this dream, however, with a number of smaller entrepreneurial operators jumping at this opportunity too. Green Street Smoked Meats is just across the street from Soho House and is a must-visit when in the area. A slow-cook Texas barbecue concept was buzzing every time we walked by, both day and night. While the food and beverage selection was interesting, it was very much as you’d expect, but particularly noteworthy was the presentation of the food, being served on shared oven trays. The standout feature of this venue was the interior, however. It blended the abrasive industrial feel of a suburban warehouse with contemporary design features to create a venue that really produces a wow factor. Shared bench and long table seating with large format graffiti installations and exposed brickwork were particularly noteworthy. My favourite feature was the recycled Belfast sinks filled with ice, used to hold self-service beer and soft drinks.

This venue was sandwiched between two equally impressive sites. The RM Champagne Salon offered an upmarket experience with an extensive list of bubbly by the glass and bottle. As is usual in the US, there seemed to be no strict accordance with what is a “real” champagne by region, but still a top spot with large outside terrace serving as a sun-trap (as my slight sunburn can provide testament to) and an impressive high ceiling interior with a striking mosaic blue finish.

The Parlor Pizza Bar provided a little more of an everyday type experience, with long high-tables, sports on big-screen televisions and a rooftop terrace with a 30-minute wait. While we didn’t taste the food, we caught a glimpse at tables nearby and the offer was a traditional inch thick Chicago-style pizza. One learning we really ought to pick up from the US is the table service across the board, even in dive and sports bars, it's certainly helped us empty our wallets faster.

Saving what I think is the best until last, the Little Goat Diner was a real winner, mixing an offer with unusual and contrasting constituent parts. It offers a bakery, coffee shop, bar and diner under one roof – this venue reminds me of my years living in Australia and New Zealand with a real Melburnian feel. The coffee was, of course, not as good as Down Under and the barista looked blankly back at me with the request for a flat white, but the decor was cool and site buzzing. Again, a rooftop terrace proved beyond our reach with significant queues. Someone has to nail this type of concept here in the UK. Whoever you are, let me know when you do. I’d love to come check it out.

As I’m sure you picked up another amazing trip, I am really buzzing by the inspiration and learnings still to be had, even after three consecutive trips to the city on tour. Until next year in Las Vegas. 

The Propel/ALMR study tour to Las Vegas takes place at the end of March 2017. Anyone who would like to express a preliminary interest in attending should email paul.charity@propelinfo.com 
James Hacon was managing director of Elliotts with the Chicago trip taking place in his final week with the company. Next week he takes a position as group strategy director with Thai Leisure Group.

Learnings from Chicago by Kate Nicholls

This time last week, I was attending the first in a series of restaurant visits on the Propel/ALMR Study Tour to see the best that Chicago – restaurant capital of the States – could offer by way of the latest trends, the newest openings, and insights into what might be coming round the corner in another time zone.

Going to the National Restaurant Association show, which attracts nearly 60,000 visitors, in itself is an overwhelming experience. It would take several days to see it properly and explore the new products and technology out there – but travelling with a group of operators and suppliers, learning from them, debating and discussing our trade not only brings it alive but enhances it immeasurably. Throw in the on-the-ground research from Technomic, Propel and Elliotts in taking us to some brilliant – and some “unique” – venues, presentations from industry gurus like Jim Sullivan, and this is fact-finding with a vengeance. The learning experience is phenomenal but I wanted to share with you some of my main takes from the trip.

1. The Brits are coming: Last year, I commented on the fact America had slipped in its position as trendsetter in eating and drinking out. London, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and our other major cities were already matching our transatlantic cousins on vibrancy and dynamism and, truth be told, there was little new in Chicago that I hadn’t already seen at home. The London eating out and nightlife scene is edgier and the northern powerhouse night-time economies grittier, matching London and the US experimentally and experientially. Our street food scene is more authentic and our customers more willing to be challenged and try something new. Our sister organisation the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) recommendations for new food trends for its delegates even had a heavy British slant – Nando’s, Pret, Soho House – and the food trends were familiar, too, with ramen and authentic Mexican featuring – but I’ve had better at Wagamama and Wahaca, frankly. Chicken in all its forms seemed a really dominant food trend – eggs, too. And in both cases I saw petitions and picketing around animal welfare – but again it was British interpretations of the US classic barbecue or fried chicken that were seen as on trend. What I was most struck by, however, was the force for regeneration the British invasion had been culturally. Last year, visiting Soho House, there was nothing around it. This year, they have created their own food neighbourhood, which wouldn’t look out of place in Hoxton or Shoreditch. Next time a politician talks about British exports, make sure they include restaurants in that.

2. Personal impersonal: Where the US market is ahead is in delivering a good quality product quickly. The only real area of growth is in fast-casual but whereas in the UK that market is dominated by grab-and-go chains, in the US the focus is on delivering a personalised, fresh product in the time it would take to queue at Pret. Conveyor belt production approaches – what we only see in Subway – were everywhere. From hot dogs to lobster rolls, American barbecue rolls to soft tacos, the mantra is “have it your way”. Whether it would work in the UK, where customers are far less inclined to pick off-menu or feel confident enough to personalise their order remains to be seen, but it did highlight the fact America is much more of a limited service environment. The food may be personalised but it is delivered in a relatively impersonal environment.

3. It’s all about the people: And that brings me to service – previously the one big differentiating factor between the US and UK markets. When we were discussing what we had seen on the tours, this was one point to which people returned time and again. The market was not ahead of the UK except on service. Thinking about this when I got back home and tested out the service in our local bars and restaurants, I’m not so sure this is actually the case. American service is big, brash and smiley – but just because it is overt and in your face doesn’t necessarily mean it is any better. And in fact once you move away from a full-service environment, the service can be quite poor. One interesting point I noticed was the very limited point-of-sale material, particularly in the bars. In the UK, product is very visible and you subliminally absorb a lot of the information you need to make your decision and place an order from a quick look at the beer pumps and back bar. If the beer pumps are plain copper pipes or sculptured fists with no clip or ABV displayed, bottled product is stored out of sight and the drinks menu is the equivalent size to an American novel, you are forced to talk to the bartender and rely on their knowledge to help you choose a drink. It appears to be great service, in fact it is great product knowledge (training, training, training) and a confidence to make recommendations that puts our teams to shame. The customer feels they’ve been well served, in fact they have been well-sold.

4. But is it all about the money? Now, when people talk about fantastic American service, they usually talk about the tip culture and the fact this motivates staff. The dominance of fast-casual and more particularly the limited-service conveyor belt fast-casual is starting to change that – I did notice lower standard levels this time around and the debate about minimum wage has become ever more acute. Staff in full-serve or limited-serve restaurants were typically on the minimum wage of about $3 to $4 an hour, but with the standard tip now being 20% for average service and 25% for good, they clearly earn much more. The fast-casual teams were on $10 with no tips – and their commitment to service was more limited. Wage costs, skills gap and staff retention were all preying on US minds just as much as UK ones. 
 
5. Valuing the night-time economy: Shows and study tours aside, what I found most interesting wandering around Chicago as a consumer, particularly in the evening, was how much more relaxed people were about the vibrancy, noise and business of the night-time economy. Live music is synonymous with Chicago and plenty of bars and nightclubs had their windows open, spilling people and music into the street. Hybridisation means fast-casual restaurants can sell cocktails and you can sit in comfy outside areas drinking from real glasses late into the night. There appeared to be no heavy-handed enforcement – I saw a team of just four cops on the streets in the evening – and no expectation there would be a problem. Speaking to one of the board members from the NRA he was surprised when I told him the police and local authorities in many British cities simply would not let this happen and it is clear nationally and locally, the sector, its people and its jobs are hugely valued – something we need to continue to promote.
 
And finally, what I have been asked about most is the technology – it is what most people associate with trade shows after all. My biggest wow moment? Seeing a 3D printer that prints with sugar crystals creating multi-coloured geometric and interlinked sugar cubes or a mini crystallised skull. I can really see that catching on for distinctive drink and food garnish when the cost comes down. And my biggest disappointment? How far behind such a dynamic market is on ordering and payment technology – going back to swiping a card and signing for a payment took some time to get reacquainted with. I was met with totally blank looks when I asked about contactless, no one checks signatures and payment apps are a long way off. It is clear this is one area where the American obsession with personal service gets in the way – they have much to learn from us!
 
So is there still a transatlantic divide? In some ways not and in others it is as wide as ever. Two take-away comments from the trip hammered home the difference – the first in respect of food when the seater was told, “of course a table outside is ok, they’re British”; and the second when trying to get something to drink that didn’t hit you over the head with a bag of hops, “I have a lighter option for the ladies, Stella”. Divided by a common language!
 
And that probably is my biggest take from the four days away – we have so much fantastic innovation going on all around us and it is changing very quickly. The value of the trip is in getting a breathing space from the everyday operations to take time to look and explore but more importantly it is in sharing those thoughts with other operators, bouncing ideas and networking with them. So bring on the next ALMR/Propel Study Tour, set to journey to Las Vegas in 2017, but in the meantime, let’s explore and celebrate the great operators and experiences we have on our doorstep. Study tour anyone?
Kate Nicholls is chief executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers
 

Tim Bacon’s legacy by Ann Elliott

Last week, I went to Tim Bacon’s memorial service in Manchester along with about 1,500 other people – there was standing room only at The Albert Hall above Albert’s Schloss in Peter Street. It was the most amazing event with emotional speeches from a close family friend, his mother, his brother, his son, Peter Martin and business partner Jeremy Roberts. A brilliant band played plus great soloists and an inspirational choir. Although it was an open invite, I felt very honoured and privileged to be there.
 
I remember years ago, at one leadership training programme at Whitbread, we were asked to write down what we wanted others to say about us at our funeral. The point being if we wanted others to think those things then we had better start acting that way now. A bit like Covey when he says “Begin with the end in mind” (although I am not sure he had dying in mind when he wrote that). I was thinking of that all the way through the service. How had Tim wanted people to remember him? What did he want his legacy to be? There are others who were much closer to Tim than me – others who will know absolutely what he would have wanted but, if the memorial service was the first time I had heard about Tim, this would have been my take out. 
 
1. Love your children and make sure they know you love them. Tim’s son’s speech was moving and poignant as were the many pictures shown during the service of Tim and his children. There was a real sense of balance of work and play in his life.
 
2. Do what you love. It felt, having tried a number of jobs (including acting), Tim found what he loved the day he walked into a bar. He seemed to thrive on buying businesses, opening new sites, developing new brands and generating success. He loved the business. He was creative, innovative and hugely energetic with tremendous vision and ambition.
 
3. Work with someone you trust and admire. Tim was making decisions with Jeremy about the future of the business on the day he died. Theirs was an amazing partnership based on immense mutual respect. It’s clear those who had worked with him for a long time felt the same way too.
 
4. If you are going to do something, do it well. A video played at the service showed Tim practising his cocktail making/ bottle juggling/flair skills for what may have been hours on end. He even demonstrated them on the Richard and Judy show https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YB2l2CMQY8Y. His mum spoke about Tim getting up at 4.30am as a young boy to deliver milk in order to earn money and then going on to swim for an hour because he wanted to be an Olympic champion. From an early age he had focus, determination and real drive.
 
5. Be yourself. I remember going to a Multi Unit Foodservice Operators conference in America one year and waiting in the hotel lobby before we all went out for dinner. All the men were wearing their “going out” clothes – blue Polo shirt, chinos and deck shoes. Tim was the last to arrive and was wearing flip flops, shorts and an Hawaiian shirt (although he did play by the rules when he won the Mancoolian awards: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YB2l2CMQY8Y). He was very much his own man and loved for that.
 
6. Never give up. If there was an ever a person with endless positivity, optimism and a zest for life it was Tim. He tried so hard to live. He wanted to live. He did everything he could possibly do to stay alive and he never stopped trying.
 
On a personal front, Tim was very kind to me. He helped organise a Manchester tour for the whole of our team and was incredibly generous during our stay. I had emailed him the week before about catching up and was sending dates through – he was always so good to spend time with. Last week I went to The Trading House in Gresham Street and it seemed to summarise Tim for me – beautiful, warm, stylish, full of laughter and fun. I will miss him.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of leading sector PR and marketing agency Elliotts – www.elliottsagency.com

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