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Morning Briefing for pub, restaurant and food wervice operators

Fri 17th Mar 2023 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Where do food halls go from here part two, busting transgender myths, the joy of loitering, good things coming in small packages
Authors: Simon Anderson, James Manning and Gaynor Mary Warren-Wright, Phil Mellows, Glynn Davis

Where do food halls go from here – part two by Simon Anderson

In my last piece, I focused on the large city-based food halls with their unique locations and impressive size, imagining them akin to the few football teams with the resources to chase Champions League glory. Hoping not to take this analogy too far, in the UK we have the FA Cup, the greatest football competition of all, where teams from cities, towns, villages and suburbs across the country get a chance at the big time. In the food hall world we have some smaller local food halls that punch well above their size and location and, on the right day, with the loyal support of their fans, can create a giant-killing upset. 

I identified Altrincham Market as a key influence in developing the UK food hall scene. It thoroughly deserves its position as the poster child for the role of food halls in urban regeneration. It is blessed with many of the critical ingredients needed for success, which many others will need help matching. Chief among these is Nick Johnson, a visionary founder with the foresight to understand what his town required and the drive to make it happen. Next is a unique historic building, a traditional agricultural market hall and a covered open market, which can flex and change with the days of the week and the seasons.

Its location in Greater Manchester, with above-average demographics, provides an advantage over many similar towns its size. Finally, it had a local council with the bravery to support and back the change, weathering all the negativity that any change invariably generates. Altrincham has gone from a failing town to being voted by The Times as “UK’s best place to live in 2019”, with the market acting as a catalyst, giving other people and businesses the confidence to open in and around it, redefining what a market town should be in the 21st century.

Getting hold of a historic market building is an operator’s dream and, sadly, very rare. By far and away the most opportunities are in redeveloping redundant department stores and large high street shops. The high street is the most challenging and rewarding element of the future of food halls. When executed correctly as part of a host of complementary solutions, they can anchor and help regenerate our towns and suburbs with the potential to create real impact.

When opening a local food hall, it is essential to understand that the key stakeholders can vary. With large city food halls, it tends to be the simple landlord and tenant relationship. But many of our high streets have been repurchased by councils, with their regeneration being driven by them and their asset managers, bringing a whole range of advantages and disadvantages. 

I must caveat everything by saying that food halls are not a guaranteed silver bullet, and several factors must be considered in making them successful. The utmost is why the opportunity exists for them in the first place. This is the changing landscape of our high streets and town centres. Whole industries, careers and degrees are built on this topic, but for me, everything always boils down to people. People’s habits and needs have changed, and our high streets and town centres have lost their relevance. People do not visit places they do not need. This makes understanding your actual customers and their communities the most critical factor in the success of local food halls. Altrincham highlights “people” as the crucial factor in its popularity, and that by understanding and giving opportunities to people, it planted the seeds of its own success.

Sometimes I do fear that just because department stores and food halls are both big, they are assumed to be automatic bedfellows. Big is not necessarily better. Too often, I see overly ambitious projects with too many covers to ever create the correct vibe, and too many kitchens to provide enough sustainable income for its traders. The venue’s size needs to be pitched to that of your audience and location, requiring the ability to flex between the time of day, weekdays and weekends to maximise revenue potential. 

Department stores are often handicapped by being in ugly, soulless boxes from decades past. This is invariably countered by being in a great location with high footfall. They closed because they lost their role, importance and relevance; people would visit them because it was the first time they saw a colour television, held a Chanel handbag or heard a Walkman. They were places of wonder and convenience before mass-market economics and the internet eroded them.

To succeed, food halls must find new relevance. This can be achieved in many ways. The first question is, what does the location need? Entertainment is the current wonder drug of our high streets. On my travels around the country, I am amazed at how fast competitive socialising and experiential entertainment have spread. Food halls can capitalise on this trend, but it is often hard to compete with specialist operators, and points of differentiation are needed. 

Food halls suit the programming of a wide range of events and entertainment. Many of our smaller towns have lost their live venues, and food halls can fill the gap with music, events and comedy. I have also seen success in instigating weekend craft, flea and vintage markets. All these uses must be factored into your design and layout to avoid creating dead spots when not in use.

The real secret to relevance is the entrepreneurship at the heart of the food hall business model. By thoughtfully curating their traders, food halls can offer lower barriers to entry, with the requirement for less capital investment allowing young, independent local businesses to take their first steps into owning and running their own businesses. This delivers an essential benefit in providing jobs and opportunities in locations where they are most sorely needed.

More importantly, those young chefs and businesses who start within the food hall can learn their trade in a safe, nurtured environment, earning the funds to open stand-alone restaurants. Their sous chefs and staff can develop new brands, and one day have their own food hall kitchens. Traders in the weekend markets can build a customer base and funds to open their own shops. Food halls should champion local brewers, distillers and producers. All this creates a cycle of development that can be vital to the local economy.

Key stakeholders within councils are starting to understand the importance of food halls, but we need to see more funding and access to grants. I would like to see more space being used for community uses, co-working and education. I have engaged positively with several colleges and universities on this topic. Whatever the plans, community engagement and outreach are vital in local locations. Like all our great local football teams, food halls must embed and endear themselves to their local communities. This should start well before they open, inviting them to help shape and influence the offer and curation. 

A final practical point, pricing needs to be accessible and realistic. In large cities, food halls can be seen as a value alternative to restaurants, but the main competitors in many locations are McDonald’s and quick service restaurants, so you must price and create offers accordingly. By placing people first, food halls can transcend pure hospitality and entertainment, becoming valuable assets to their communities. They can be hubs for entrepreneurship, boosting the economy, providing opportunities for new businesses and jobs and playing a critical role in regenerating our towns, high streets and suburbs, especially with the current economic hardships so many face.
Simon Anderson is a food hall consultant at Ideas Food Consultancy and was previously chief operating officer at Market Halls. This column first appeared in Propel Premium.

Busting transgender myths by James Manning and Gaynor Mary Warren-Wright

Property business Grosvenor recently hosted a group of colleagues, including suppliers, occupiers and property owners, to hear the debunking of many common misconceptions around being transgender, and explore how the built environment can make a positive impact and improve inclusivity. The event, held through LGBTQ+ network Freehold, also looked at how we can all be allies to the transgender community.

Attendees heard first-hand experiences and reflections from transgender spokespeople including: Maxine Heron (she/her) – writer, model, trans advocate and marketeer at Jecca Blac; Dr Ellie Cosgrave (she/her) – director of research and community interest at Publica; Gaynor Wright (she/her) – sole principal at Warren Wright Associates and Freehold member; and Ella Slade (they/them) – global LGBTQ+ leader at IBM.

Among the myths that were busted were: 
MYTH: Being transgender is a new phenomenon. Transgender and non-binary people have been around for centuries in culture and history. However, the terms “transgender” and “non-binary” are relatively new terms for them.  
FACT: There’s still confusion about what these labels mean. Non-binary means a person who does not identify as either male or female. Transgender means a person whose gender identity is different from the gender assigned to them at birth. 
MYTH: The transgender community only care about pronouns and gender-neutral toilets. This damaging perception downplays a complex, nuanced human experience that includes challenges relating to healthcare, mental health, discrimination and access to work.  
FACT: Misconceptions can have damaging consequences. We have seen increased suicide and murder rates across the UK. 2021 was the deadliest year on record for transgender people, with a five-fold rise in hate crimes reported over the previous five years.   
FACT: Practical support for this community remains scarce. Currently, gender-inclusive care clinics have a 52-month waiting time to get a first appointment, with another 12-18 months to get a second.   

Trans visibility and allyship in property 
Increasing transgender visibility is crucial in helping provide role models, allies and community for people who are exploring their gender identity. The panel highlighted positive experiences in companies like CBRE and IBM, which provide support for individuals, managers and teams going through this experience.  

The panel also commented on the importance of allyship, especially due to the relatively small size of the trans community in the UK, and especially in the property sector (in the 2022 census, just 0.5% of the population didn’t identify with the gender they were registered with at birth). This can make it difficult to create change and be accepted.  

Our buildings, workspaces and places play an important role in either including or excluding people with different gender identifies. As built environment professionals, we can address this by engaging a diverse group of people early in the design and creation of places as well as their management, to address factors such as safety, signage and creating a sense of belonging.  

Publica’s work with the GLA on inclusive spaces was created to help designers and placemakers do just that. Ten projects across London are trialling its new framework. There were a number of practical recommendations:

1. Ask questions and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t shy away from checking to see what language you should use when speaking with a trans person if you aren’t sure. 

2. Think about your approach. Before asking about a trans person’s lived experience, check to see if they are comfortable answering the question. Consider your intention: body related questions are not necessary to gaining an understanding on someone’s experience, but leading with compassion will help build a good relationship and build mutual understanding. 

3. Listen to personal experiences and stories. One attendee, Shelley Watson, gave us this feedback: “I was thoroughly interested and enlightened by the topics covered at the event and feel like my LGBTQ+ blinkers have been removed. I understand so much more and have utmost respect and compassion for this strong and brave community.” Sharing experience is a powerful thing. 

4. Create a transgender toolkit for your business. Like IBM’s, this should outline support for people who come out as transgender, what healthcare they can receive through your organisation and how your organisation will engage their manager/team.  

5. Include your pronoun on your email signature and/or social media profile. Simple support helps normalise the use of preferred pronouns. 
James Manning is social impact lead at Grosvenor Property UK and Gaynor Mary Warren-Wright is sole principal of Warren Wright Associates and Propel’s diversity, equality and inclusion advisor

The joy of loitering by Phil Mellows

Celebrating the return to the local in my previous column left a big question, of course. What’s to become of town and city centres, potentially hollowed out by this centrifugal drift to neighbourhoods? While the pandemic has certainly deepened this trend and made it more visible, the truth is our urban centres have been a worry for at least 30 years, since big retailers started moving out to the ring roads.

As early as the 1990s, before the internet introduced another way of buying stuff, local authorities feared high streets and shopping centres would be abandoned and that crime and disorder would move in. Hospitality was seen as a solution and operators were actively encouraged to open bars, restaurants and clubs in derelict, post-industrial city quarters.

So many pubs opened in old banks it became a bit of a joke, and it’s ironic that by the end of the decade, the solution became perceived as the problem as thousands of young people flooded into the new drinking circuits and the media zoomed in on the resulting scenes of drunkenness and disorder.

It was exaggerated, of course, and I believe, not inevitable. With a bit of foresight and planning, these bars could have been less concentrated geographically and could have been better designed, better controlled and better managed, with the staff better trained.

As it is, we’re left with the legacy of “Binge Britain” and a public health lobby energised against the drinks trade. But now that hospitality is again being seen as the way to bring life to our city centres, that’s not the only argument for planning.

One thing the industry doesn’t seem to lack is ideas. Sarah Travell’s survey of the latest experiential concepts in last week’s Propel Friday Opinion was educational. I now know what “Nerf” means, and it seems the fashion for competitive socialising now also includes snakes and ladders, thanks to the excellently-named Chance & Counters cafes.

Games of one sort or another have been an important part of pubs for centuries. People need a reason to get together, something to hang the conversation around. An invite to a cribbage session is more tempting than the embarrassing offer of a long conversation. Human beings are funny like that.

So, we have the ideas, and hopefully the money. Competitive socialising can be expensive. Often, a site will have to be totally transformed, especially if you’re building in shuffleboards and crazy golf courses. They may turn out to be a fad too, although they said that about darts when it took off in pubs between the wars.

Do we have the customers? People will probably continue to go out less often, but when they do make the trip into town, they want it to be a special experience. Build that, and they will come. It’s remarkable that while disposable incomes are being squeezed hard, many still choose to spend some of it on social activity. It’s seen as more of a necessity than a luxury.

But how long will they stay? Will they discover the joy of loitering (to steal a notion from German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who wrote a vast, sprawling, unfinished book about the compelling attractions of 19th century Paris, The Arcades Project)?

To be truly valuable and memorable, and to make the whole thing commercially viable, a trip to the city centre has to take in more than a meal in a restaurant or a visit to the theatre. Everything has to work together to hold people there. 

It must appeal to everyone too, not just the 18 to 30-year-olds, with the right mix of things to do and see. It must be accessible and safe, easy to get around. Businesses must operate to mutual benefit and not see themselves simply in competition with each other for time and money. 

And to get the maximum out of this opportunity, we need good planning. Local authorities and other agencies, along with operators, have to get together and decide what works best, what infrastructure is needed and which combination of attractions will increase city centre dwell time, in consultation with the people who’ll be enjoying a trip into town.

That way, our urban heartlands can bloom into vibrant playgrounds rather than collapse into dangerous deserts. It’s easier said than done, of course. The political will has to be there, and the right people have to be doing the planning for the right reasons. It’s a vision that can seem a long way off, but everything starts with a dream.
Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist

Good things coming in small packages by Glynn Davis

Ludlow, in Shropshire, was becoming something of a food destination in the 2000s, helped by the cooking of Shaun Hill, who transformed a residential property on the high street into the Merchant House restaurant and earned the venue a Michelin star. 
 
My wife took me for a weekend away to this attractive town, which included lunch in Hill’s acclaimed dining room, and I can still very much remember the occasion. Not for any of the dishes as such, but for the image of the chef cooking single-handedly in what was the tiniest professional kitchen – more domestic really – that I’d ever seen. Meanwhile, the front-of-house was meticulously handled by a single waitress, Hill’s wife Anja, who oversaw the compact dining room.
 
The two-person team successfully ran Merchant House for almost 20 years before moving on in 2005. During this time and beyond, we have been through cycles of some massive restaurants coming and going including Terence Conran’s 700-cover 25,000 square-foot behemoth Mezzo, Bibis Italianissimo in Leeds, Langan’s Brasserie, Albert’s Schloss in various cities and Brasserie Zédel, along with an array of humungous food halls in recent years.
 
As the cost-of-living crisis, combined with higher mortgage rates, starts to bite, the running of a food and drink business based on competitive pricing and high volumes is becoming a bit of a challenge. The answer for some, especially at the upper end of the market, is to go small. In recent months, we have seen a concerted move in this direction by a number of chefs, often with front-of-house partners. They have recognised the simplicity of the model that includes benefits such as lower rents and utility bills, minimal employee costs and a general reduction in operational processes and associated overheads. 
 
In Newcastle, a husband-and-wife team, Kenny and Abbie Atkinson, have opened 12-cover Solstice in a former café, and in Edinburgh, a chef and sommelier are about to open Eòrna, a chef’s table-only venue that will comprise a counter-top style arrangement for 12 customers. Having trialled the project as a pop-up last summer, they have concluded the economics stack up for a permanent bricks-and-mortar site. With pretty impressive CVs behind them, the pair will no doubt be able to charge accordingly for the planned sophisticated dining experience. 
 
This is very much the case at Mayha in London’s Marylebone, which opened in January with 11 seats and two sittings for both lunch and dinner, priced at £200 and £100 respectively for a fixed-menu offering. A new addition is an even more exclusive six-seat downstairs bar. A core part of the proposition of these venues is high-end dining and exclusivity, with the attendant hefty prices, but for the chefs involved, it is often just about creating a model that affords them lifestyle changes.

At the recently opened Hodson & Co No 23 at Aylsham, in East Anglia, Charlie Hodson only operates on Tuesday to Friday evenings, for a single reservation that secures the sole table in the restaurant. It can accommodate up to 20 people, but for a booking of six people, he runs the place single-handedly – cooking and waiting. “This isn’t a numbers game, it’s about passion,” he said. “It means I get to cook. I’m trying to get a classification of maybe being the smallest restaurant in the UK.”
 
Maybe he is being too hasty, because undercutting everybody on the cover numbers game is Eddie Shepherd, with The Walled Gardens underground restaurant near Manchester, which sits inside a residential property and serves only eight diners per night. Like Hodson, this is very much a lifestyle choice for Shepherd, who focuses purely on a plant-based menu that involves lots of experimentation with ingredients and flavours. 
 
This focus on small venues aligned with a better work/life balance is not just restricted to restaurants, because the micro-pub phenomenon also very much fits into this low-volume, low-staffing, limited opening times model. Such characteristics certainly sit comfortably with ongoing societal and economic shifts, and so I’m betting that small will be big in the future. 
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

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