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Morning Briefing for pub, restaurant and food wervice operators

Fri 14th Jan 2022 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: QSRs leading the way in the vegan revolution, goodbye and good riddance to 2021, teens and technology, striking the balance for staff
Authors: Glynn Davis, Paul Chase, Alison Vasey, Jon Spiteri

QSRs leading the way in the vegan revolution by Glynn Davis

When my predominantly vegetarian daughter had her pick of takeaway meals on New Year’s Eve she chose Ready Burger in Crouch End, whose fully plant-based proposition aims to mirror that of McDonald’s, with a similar-looking menu and equally competitive pricing – its core Ready Burger a mere 99p.

In contrast, my son is not quite as interested in embracing the meat-free ethos, instead having contrarian tendencies to his sister and demanding meat at most mealtimes. He therefore joined his meat-lite parents to enjoy a beef Rendang dish among other meaty options from a local Malaysian restaurant.

Herein lies the issue with vegetarian restaurants. They appeal very strongly to a committed grouping, but for many people they remain off the radar and are not considered an option when spending money on a takeaway or when dining out. Yes, vegetarianism and veganism are on the rise, but they’re still minority sports – albeit ones that are growing, especially among younger people. In the 25-34 age range, as many as 45% of people said they had cut back on meat in recent months, according to Mintel, and the number of vegans rose by 40% last year (albeit to only 3% of the population), based on research from Finder.

My guess is that those people reducing their meat intake are most likely to cut their consumption at home, whereas when dining out, they splurge on the meat options. How many people watch their health by limiting their butter-spreading at home, but then when in a restaurant, make up for it by “treating” themselves to slathering mountains of the full-fat version on their bread?

Amid the rise in non-meat consumption, it was interesting to see the decision by Claridge’s hotel to close its Davies & Brook restaurant at the end of December when its partner chef, Daniel Humm, announced that he wanted to switch to a fully vegan menu to align it with his New York City-based three Michelin starred 11 Madison Park dining room. His change in stance was based on strong feelings: “Standing behind this mission, and what we believe in, is most important, and is unfortunately not something we can compromise on.”

While his epiphany for plant-based food and uncompromising position on the matter must be applauded, it is invariably the job of Claridge’s, as hotelier, to compromise on behalf of its guests. As good as Humm’s food is, the broad mix of Claridge’s residents – including many from the steak-chomping US – meant it had no choice but to part ways with the talented chef. 

There is clearly a place for restaurants focused purely on plant-based foods, with the likes of Alex Gauthier’s eponymous restaurant in London’s Soho attracting many people – undoubtedly helped by the fact these top chefs could magic up the food equivalent of a silk purse out of a meat-free version of a sow’s ear. But for other restaurants that are less of a destination and don’t have stars in the kitchen, it will no doubt be a tough challenge to succeed when the cuisine only appeals to a specific chunk of the population.

What might help broadcast the vegan message is the recent deluge of activity we’ve seen from some of the biggest names in the quick-service restaurant industry. In only the past few weeks, KFC has brought its vegan chicken burger back permanently and is testing out its beyond fried chicken for a limited period. McDonald’s has made its McPlant burger available in all its UK and Ireland restaurants following a successful trial, while Shake Shack has made its crispy shallot burger permanent in the UK. Burger King has also launched vegan nuggets, while Wagamama has introduced a vegan fish and chips dish to its menu.

While such moves do indeed spread the message of vegan foods and introduce meat alternatives to a broader audience, they also dramatically increase competition in the market. This further raises the question of whether there is yet a big enough slice in the eating-out pie for pure vegan restaurants that are pitched in the affordable, mainstream segment of the market.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

Goodbye and good riddance to 2021 by Paul Chase

So, two weeks into 2022 has provided me with the opportunity to review 2021, and the tumultuous events that have unfolded. I hope for better days ahead and that we will finally be able to put covid in the rear-view mirror. I hesitate to predict we will, because one of the lessons of the past 22 months is that you never know what is around the corner with the pandemic. I was firmly convinced covid was behind us when the UK government lifted restrictions in the summer, but then we had omicron.

The UK was in some form of lockdown for most of the first half of the year. By January, the lockdown sceptics movement, led by bad faith actors and a sprinkling of crazies, had moved on from arguing that lockdowns were not beneficial on balance to declaring they had no benefit at all. The second wave had destroyed most of their claims from 2020, but that didn’t deter many of them from going full-on anti-vax. Piers Corbyn may have provided light relief for those amused by crack-pottery, but the mortality figures looked grim, and while the vaccination programme severely weakened the connection between infection, hospitalisation, and death, it didn’t break it altogether.

It turned out that government assertions that we would have to live with covid meant tolerating 1,000 deaths a week – this did somewhat weaken the claim that the vaccine cavalry would come riding over the hill to save us. But, of course, there was the usual chorus of nonsense from those who parroted “was it death of or with covid?” – implying some dark globalist plot to big-up the pandemic so that “the elites” could control us, or something.

But covid wasn’t the only thing going on. Despite numerous studies showing that minimum unit pricing (MUP) wasn’t delivering the expected benefits in Scotland, the temperance nutters just called for it more. And they got it – MUP has been introduced in Wales and now the Republic of Ireland as well. How long will it be before the government at Westminster is pressured into this measure? Despite all evidence to the contrary, there are still some benighted figures who believe that you can price people out of alcohol dependency.

One of the few bright spots from the perspective of policy formation is that the chancellor announced a new alcohol duty system that broadly taxed stronger drinks more than weaker ones. Hopefully the government will continue to restrain alcohol duty overall, keep the lower level of VAT for the time-being and give the licensed retail sector some chance of recovery.

If the covid pandemic has taught us anything, it is surely that the devolution settlement has created division and political point-scoring on an epic scale. In retrospect, it seems obvious that making the pandemic a devolved matter would set up a political game in which the devolved administrations and their rinky-dink assemblies would attempt to assert their differences from England by outdoing one another with restrictions.

I listened to Boris Johnson at PMQs fending off criticism of “partygate”, and I must say I was reminded of Kenneth Williams in the spoof movie Julius Caesar, plaintively crying “Infamy, infamy – they’ve all got it in for me!” Those calling for his resignation should reflect on the risks involved in replacing him. Michael Gove is a Blair fanboy and favours more restrictions – vaccine passports and mandates, etc. Liz Truss is allegedly more libertarian but lacks intellectual heft. Rishi Sunak would be my choice as he is more aware than most of the costs to the economy and, in particular, to hospitality than most other candidates. For the time being it may be better for our sector for Johnson to remain in office, a prisoner of his own right wing, and so damaged by “partygate” that he couldn’t, with any credibility, introduce more severe restrictions or another lockdown.

I look forward to 26 January, when current covid regulations and restrictions are due to be reviewed, and I fervently hope they will be rescinded in their entirety. We can’t go on like this, and we will, in any event, be sorting out the economic damage of covid money-printing, and the stagflation it is leading to, for several years to come.

Finally, thanks to all of you who have read my articles in Propel over the past year, and for your comments and insights. I raise a glass to 2022!
Paul Chase is director of Chase Consultancy and a leading industry commentator on alcohol and health

Teens and technology by Alison Vasey

If stereotypical media depictions are to be believed, teenagers are a species who are more likely to be found in gyms, vegan cafés or at home on a device than anywhere near more traditional hospitality outlets.

And while there may be an element of truth in the above, it also appears that, thankfully, hospitality still holds a broad appeal to the next generation of customers. With the industry currently fighting for day-to-day survival after almost two years like nothing before, we wanted to understand more about how future guests see hospitality and technology and, crucially, how the industry can evolve to tap into this.

With that in mind, we surveyed 500 teenagers and held focus group sessions with two groups, aged between 13 and 15 and 16 and 17. To the surprise of nobody, we discovered that, yes, technology comes very naturally to this group – 95% of them own a smartphone and 69% think technology has a positive impact on society. What was telling, though, is that while much of their lives evolve around technology – from education to communications and leisure – it does not mean they want it to dominate their social experiences.

In fact, our findings show that while technology will play a vital role in every step of the future guest’s journey, so too will traditional factors such as face-to-face socialising, value, atmosphere and quality food and drink options. Focus groups were peppered with quotes such as: “I go out to socialise and have fun with my friends. It’s about having fun and making memories.”

When asked about how to choose a café or restaurant to go to, the top answer was the quality of food and drink (63%) followed by how much it costs (52%). The availability of Wi-Fi (34%) and how good food and drink looks for social (22%), while further down the list of priorities, are factors that should not be overlooked.

Teenagers crave face-to-face time as much as anyone else. We believe operators will need to further embrace technology to attract them in and to provide them with the optimum experience.

Social media plays a vital role here. 42% of teenagers who use social media hourly visited a venue because they saw it on such a platform. A quarter of that same group (25%) visited because they thought it would look good on their own feeds. With 10% of teenagers using social media for vlogging, the research highlights how savvy operators can attract content creators to spread the word about their businesses.

Once with you, customers will want to be entertained. Two thirds (65%) of all teenagers are interested in virtual reality gaming experiences. Also, the rise of competitive socialising (as seen with the likes of Flight Club and more recently Sixes) is to continue. Expect virtual reality, augmented reality and even mixed reality to all play a part here. As far as hospitality is concerned however, we see the role of virtual reality and augmented reality to go beyond gaming, with operators using these virtual ways of interacting as potential tools for training staff and providing product information.

However, the advances in gaming and entertainment should be seen as an enhancer to a social occasion rather than fundamental, with many teenagers telling us that they “want to put their phone down” when they are socialising in person with friends.

As the pandemic has shown, the industry can be quick to adapt to tech. Table-booking and ordering apps, cashless payments and digital communications have played a huge part in helping businesses connect with their customers.

The use of these emerging technologies also has a role to play in the venue of the future – and as teenagers will be the servers in pubs and restaurants in the future, they will easily embrace these technologies to serve the guests more efficiently and provide quicker and faster service.

And it might just be that the tech that is less obviously visible to customers will be as, if not more, valuable than what’s on show. Investment in these areas will free up staff to focus on providing the high-class service, experiences and atmosphere that customers crave. Implementing such systems will also allow companies to collect data and create the personalised offers and deals that many teens seem to want – more than half (55%) think businesses should know enough about them to only show the best products, services and offers.

Investing in a variety of forms of cashless payment is a no-brainer too – 41% of 13 to 15-year-olds believe cash is just for older people. Bigger changes may also be afoot for the sector, as this generation matures. Voice recognition tech will move from the home to hospitality, or robots could play a part in service, for example.

So, while it is vital that hospitality embraces technology, this should never be at the expense of what has made hospitality so appealing for hundreds of years. The need to eat and drink in a convivial environment in the company of like-minded people remains at the heart of the customer experience.

Technology, when implemented appropriately, should be an enhancer to that all important and timeless experience of face-to-face socialising.
Alison Vasey is group product director at Zonal

Striking the balance for staff by Jon Spiteri

Broadly, there are two responses from people when they begin to work in hospitality. Many of us are a strange breed who start in the business, don’t realise how addictive it can be and end up staying for many years. Others find it hard to get their head around the idea of being a server – not so much the need to be civil to customers, but the actual job of doing things for other people, however good they are at it.

In that second group in particular, we’ve seen significant numbers leave hospitality during the pandemic as the lockdown gave them the opportunity to review their work/life balance and make decisions about their future. They want to pursue different goals, and that’s their choice. I’ve always had the policy of not presuming that when staff come to work for you, it’s their whole life. It just isn’t.

However, it means we used to have a bank of staff that we could choose from, and now it’s just not like that. Due to the pandemic, with Brexit also a very significant factor, it is now very difficult for restaurants, particularly in the London market where Sessions Arts Club operates, to recruit staff.

During December, were only able to open three days a week. That’s not a demand issue as we’re fully booked whenever we open, it’s entirely about the availability of staff. We’re lucky at Sessions, it was a great fit for the London market when we opened in the summer. It’s a great building and appeals to people who want a bit of luxury at an affordable cost. It has all the elements needed for success, but my concern is, without sounding like a harbinger of doom, the staffing issue means the hospitality sector is really no more than just hanging on in there.

One thing we’re doing in response is employing and training more young people. Interestingly, we’ve also seen a change in the dynamic between staff and customers. People hadn’t been going to restaurants for some time, and so they’re very happy to be back. 

We’re finding that they’re more lenient and gentler when it comes to dealing with the staff, with more interplay between staff and customers in a way that perhaps wasn’t evident before lockdown. We get some great customer feedback on how lovely our staff are and appreciation of the fact that they’re not seasoned waiting staff, but learning on the job 

All this had taught us that developing staff is really important. I don’t think we had to worry about that as much before. That’s not to say we didn't do it, just that we didn’t have to worry about it. Now, I think we need to be more concerned about what employees want and have a structured approach to career development – for example, by ensuring there’s a clear path from the floor to working in the kitchen, or on to supervisor and manager roles. 

Communication has become even more important as we’ve kept our teams updated every step of the way in and out of lockdowns, and technology helps deliver that. The Bizimply workforce management tool is very useful, allowing employees to tell us which shifts they are available for, and for us to give them plenty of notice of when we need them. 

For our customers to leave happy, we need happy staff, and you don’t get happy staff just by paying them. You have to give them good conditions to work in, and the freedom to do what they want to do beyond work.
Jon Spiteri is a co-founder of Clerkenwell’s Sessions Arts Club

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