The so-called casual dining crunch could be good news for independent operators, according to the findings of a recent industry round table.

The event, hosted by Christie & Co and solicitors Goodman Derrick, brought together a range of operators from the restaurant sector to discuss industry trends and developments.

Changing consumer demands were a key theme of the discussion, with technology and the shift towards experiential dining leaving independent restaurants, bars and cafes in a stronger position to innovate than larger chains, where red tape can stifle innovation.

Goodman Derrick hospitality lawyer, James Daglish, said: “It is clear the so-called casual dining crunch is not hitting all operators and certainly not well-balanced businesses that are responding to demand, especially from millennials. I left with the impression some chain closures will provide opportunities to high-quality, nimble businesses.”

The introduction of contactless card payment technology was cited as having a major influence on efficiency, with one operator crediting it for a 30% increase in covers. Social media is also proving a useful tool: platforms like Instagram allow smaller operators to engage with their customer base, perhaps in a more genuine way than the larger, more-faceless brands.

Simon Chaplin, Head of Pubs & Restaurants at Christie & Co, said: “The timing of this event was spot on, as in the run up the branded operators announced more closures which gave the impression that the sector was in free fall. However, the sentiment at the seminar was that focused, independent operators were finding growth and opportunity.”

The discussion also highlighted the watering-down effect perpetuated by the rapid growth in chain restaurants and how independents are better placed to provide the authentic, unique dining experiences craved by today’s consumer.

“We see the current situation as more of a reality check than a downturn,” says Tony Matters, Creative Director at Faber. “Consumers are still spending on food and beverage, but their preferences are leaning more towards unique, independent operators.”

“This is great news for our clients; we’re already seeing independent restaurateurs getting opportunities on city centre sites that would previously have been firmly within the grip of the big operators.”

Click here for the full writeup from Christie & Co.