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Morning Briefing Strap Line
Fri 6th May 2022 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Delivering the right result, providing hope for wet-led pubs, great places to visit
Authors: Charlie McVeigh, Glynn Davis, Ann Elliott

Delivering the right result by Charlie McVeigh

In the late 1980s, I went across to New York City (NYC) for a short and intense weekend of partying, staying with friends in Greenwich Village. On night three, everyone was pretty bombed out, and I had a flight back to London the following day. “So,” my host said, “What’s it gonna be? Chinese gross-out, Mexican gross-out or pizza gross-out?”

It turned out that many of the local eateries offered home delivery. I was awestruck. Like so much else in NYC in the 1980s, this seemed like evidence of a higher and way cooler civilisation. At that time, the order was phoned direct to the restaurant and the delivery boy would run round the corner and up the stairs to your apartment. The food when it arrived was not great, but the thrill of having it delivered was. 

Fast-forward 35 years, and delivery through loss-making unicorn apps is now a key channel for many chains and independents in the UK and worldwide, albeit a channel which feels like both an opportunity and existential threat.

Pre-pandemic, what had started as an experimental minority sport for chains had already grown steeply, and shareholders were beginning to worry about margins and the potentially negative impact on customers actually dining in the restaurant. There was even some evidence that consumers who ordered from your brand at home dined in less. The feeling seemed to be that this was a relatively easy way to add like-for-like growth, but at what long-term cost?

We all know what happened in the pandemic, with a colossal surge in demand and many groups doing delivery for the first time. For a spell, operators learned to love delivery. After all, it was keeping their teams working and generating low-margin sales at a time when there were few other options. And quick service restaurant brands both small and large found a simple, permanent and profitable new revenue channel, with the customer experience risk for counter-service operations less significant. Butchies, the fried chicken business I am involved with, tripled in size during the pandemic, driven by our partnership with Deliveroo.

Meanwhile, I understand that internal research carried out by one of the big delivery firms points to an uneasy customer. When asked what emotion people sat on the sofa at home most associate with delivery, the answer was guilt. Guilt about the riders not having a proper job. Guilt that local restaurants were being over-charged. Guilt over packaging. And, yes, guilt about over-ordering, the resulting food waste and unhealthy weight gain.

Now I think the worm is turning again, and I hear operators asking whether the delivery service they have is really the delivery service they want. For smaller players, there is the certainty that their higher percentage fees are funding lower fees for McDonald’s. Then there’s the perceived risk that the aggregators will acquire or start their own brands to compete with existing platform members. Deliveroo have made the first tentative steps in this direction with the launch of Pizza Paradiso in Swiss Cottage this year. More importantly, there is something scary – Orwellian even – about sending a delivery to a customer when you have no idea who they are and have no way of building a relationship with them.

Belatedly, I must declare that I have a (small) dog in this fight. I recently invested in, and joined the board of, a new player in the market, Foodstuff, which offers an ethical-sustainable delivery service for independents in six cities and rising. Fees are significantly less than from the big players (offset by a higher basket size), all delivery vehicles are zero emissions and riders get a real job with benefits and the real living wage. Eventually, we see Foodstuff being a community for independents with a range of aggregated services being offered, as well as access to customer data and tools to use it. In our biggest city, Bristol, 75% of our restaurants have now gone exclusive with us for delivery.

Our experience at Foodstuff is that independent restaurateurs have chosen one of the toughest ways to make a living in Britain because they want to be just that: independent. Quality indie eateries are run by a community of people who often feel strongly about staff welfare, the environment, ethical business and so on. 

And for the aspirational foodie, we have tried and tasted a list of 30-50 restaurants in each city. There is no rubbish on the app, no scrolling past garages and supermarkets. Some consumers are using Foodstuff as a way to explore the hot indie food scene in their city, with the resulting interplay between customer and indie quickly going viral, engendering strong brand awareness growth for both our restaurant partners and our app. 

Meanwhile, back with the delivery giants, there is a pitched battle going to break Deliveroo’s dominance in London – the UK’s big prize – with Just Eat very much “on a charge”. And operators are applying entrepreneurial ingenuity to working out how to drive delivery customers into dine-in and click-and-collect. Yes, there is a hidden guerrilla flyer-war going on in those hot brown bags. And a blessed few continue to thrive without using home delivery at all. 

Finally, we all watch on mystified as Domino’s and its baby brother, Yard Sale, go it alone with their own in-house delivery systems with nice, liveried riders promoting them in their locales – what the hell are the rest of us missing?

As an optimist, I believe we have the ingredients in the market for a better form of delivery for group operators, and that this will evolve naturally in what is, thankfully, a competitive market. Perhaps vainly, I’d like to think that in a small way, Foodstuff is pointing the way. But we must all tread carefully: the market is moving fast, and it is very much breaking things. 
Charlie McVeigh is the founder of Draft House and chairman of The Breakfast Club and Butchies. This piece first appeared in Propel Premium


Providing hope for wet-led pubs by Glynn Davis
 
Over the years, my attendance at trade events in Olympia has traditionally ended with the reward of a couple of pints of well-kept beer in the welcoming Warwick Arms on the very unwelcoming Warwick Road. And so, it was the same journey I took last week. But this time I was met with the majority of the tables set for dinner.
 
We’re not talking about linen table clothes and the full works here, but there were certainly enough napkins, cutlery and glasses to nudge those people just visiting for a drink into the corner of the pub where the small number of unset tables were located.
 
This scenario reminded me of my days as a judge for one of the pub industry’s major awards. For the Pub Food of the Year category, I was all too often met with a venue that was pretty much a full-blown restaurant where drinkers were distinctly deterred from visiting. There were many culprits of this crime, and none of them won the award, but the one that I can recall with most horror was The Ratcatchers pub just outside Norwich.
 
The landlord proudly boasted that the locals had actually bought their own table for drinking at because every other table in the place would be religiously set for diners at both lunch and dinner. I wasn’t impressed, and it’s clearly telling that the pub has become a restaurant named Steak in the Stix at The Ratcatchers.
 
It very much stretched my definition of a pub, and it’s for this reason that gastropubs have always sat uneasily with me. It’s sad that many places suggest they are an easygoing pub that just happens to sell Michelin-standard food, and that they welcome walk-in drinkers – but the reality is that there is invariably nowhere for these people to sit or stand. Sadly, wet-led pubs are having a particularly hard time at the moment, and so it’s not surprising there is a strong focus on the opening of food-led pubs. There is nothing short of an avalanche of chefs and food-focused operators opening venues right now.
 
In only the past few weeks, we’ve had Margot Henderson of Rochelle Canteen announce she’s opening her first pub, The Three Horseshoes in Somerset, while Michelin-starred Glynn Purnell is to open The Mount Pub in Henley-in-Arden. The team behind the acclaimed Mackie Mayor are to open their first pub, The Nags Head, near Chester, while Gary Usher has The White Horse in Cheshire in his pipeline of launches, and Gareth Ward is to build a pub next to his two-Michelin star restaurant, Ynyshir, in Wales.
 
No doubt these places will fail the test for what I’d call a true pub: a place you can simply wander in and grab a beer without having had to book six months in advance and be force fed a ten-course tasting menu. I’m not in any way harking back to the days when chicken and scampi in a basket was at the vanguard, and I clearly recognise food is so much more important today for the health of the industry, but I also believe it does not have to take over a venue to the detriment of drinkers.
 
I’ve been given a little hope recently via some smart innovations, where an interesting food proposition complements a predominantly wet-led pub business. At Bloomsbury Leisure, gyoza machines from Japan are being rolled-out across its pub estate to cook pre-prepared dumplings in a matter of minutes without the need for a chef. At the St James of Bermondsey pub in south London, they have tied-up with Pieminister to offer a concise menu of pies with mash, peas and gravy that involves little cooking effort from the pub’s team and sits well within the venue’s overall offer.
 
Another interesting development is the move into pubs by sandwich expert Max Halley, who runs his eponymous Sandwich Shop in Crouch End. He has plans to move beyond The Five Bells in Salisbury with his partners, wet-led operators Great Boozers, where the food on offer currently comprises Scotch eggs, hot sausages and scampi fries. Surely his clever sandwich creations are a no-brainier addition for these pubs. 
 
This all provides me with hope that there is life left in the good old wet-led boozer, and that I won’t have to increasingly walk into pubs and find there are more knives and forks on the tables than pints being sold, and where you are expected to order langoustines rather than lager.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends
 

Great places to visit by Ann Elliott

Tortilla founder Brandon Stephens took me to lunch the other day at Maison Bab, and during the meal, asked me if I had seen any great places recently. It was one of those times when my mind went completely blank, and my face looked completely vacant. It was only when I had time to reflect that I could provide a semi-sensible answer, and while I’m now doing so via this column and not over lunch, hopefully it is still relevant.



I would probably start with Maison Bab if I’m honest. It’s not a place I would normally even think of visiting – I can’t be the only person who associates kebabs with having a drink too many, falling asleep on the sofa and waking up with a face full of greasy meat. That was quite a while ago to be fair, but even so, the memory and the smell still linger on. Maison Bab is great, however, and put all those dubious memories to rest – although I did get more food on my clothes than I would have liked!



Granger & Co in Chelsea was an altogether more sophisticated experience in terms of clothes and food. The team didn’t flinch when I ordered a totally naked burger, though maybe it muttered behind the scenes. It’s not easy to summon up great plate presentation when only a burger graces the plate, with or without cheese, but it managed to. We had a great server, the atmosphere was relaxed, and there were chips you couldn’t say no to. I didn’t order any to save on calories, but then found myself inexplicably eating everyone else’s and being really cross with myself for the rest of the evening.



Talking about food, I loved The Grenadier in Belgravia. It must have a kitchen the size of a gnat (the rest of the pub is also tiny) but produced jaw-dropping portions of fabulous tasting food. It’s the sort of pub with a host who makes you want to stay there all day too. It’s a bit of a hidden gem in London, I think.



Hotel dining doesn’t really appeal – often too many rules, too much formality and not enough feel for food and beverage – but I liked The Standard (and its peaceful garden) just opposite King’s Cross. The décor is eclectic, interesting, creative and joyful, with just enough in there to keep a customer engaged if they are on their own and have had enough of scrolling through Instagram.



The Dakota Grill in Manchester was also interesting (though not always for the right reasons) when I had a meeting there this week. The moody, dark décor did rather conflict with summer outside, but I imagine in winter that it’s cosy, warm and very appealing. My burrata was really rather nice. If the hotel provided the chocolate fingers in the meeting room, then that was a move of genius, but I suspect it didn’t.



For coffee, WatchHouse in Seven Dials was certainly a cut above the norm. Sacrilege, I know, but instant is always my coffee of choice. However, I had “fear of missing out” watching everyone else’s order, so chose to go a little bit more upmarket and order an Americano. It was a work of art. The service was attentive, friendly and caring. The little coffee shop behind Arket, off Long Acre, is worth a visit too, as long as you march straight in and out and don't get distracted by the homeware.



The new Cote at Henley is worth a visit (love its champagne patio), as is the Bistrot Pierre and The Clubhouse (from New World Trading Company) in Plymouth (especially if you stay in the former overnight), and the Loungers in Torquay. It’s a wonderful location, and the best team I have experienced anywhere for a long while.



On my must visit list has to be Ego, as I haven’t managed to visit even one yet, but I know how successful it is. So too are the new Amalfi restaurant from The Big Table off Trafalgar Square – which Alan Morgan, its chief executive, thinks is amazing – and Bibi in Mayfair, which everyone is talking about. Lots of new concepts too are emerging, which I can’t wait to experience.
Ann Elliott is a hospitality strategist, connector and adviser

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