With the casual dining sector continuing to make the headlines, Tony discusses if it’s all as bad as reports make out, or is there still a place for chain restaurants?

Back in the 90’s we saw the rise of many restaurant ‘brands’ like Ask Italian, Zizzi’s and La Tasca. The 00’s and 10’s brought a new wave of chains like Patisserie Valerie and Jamie’s Italian.  

Many of these brands, particularly in mid-sized towns, were once the height of fashion, however, today – with a few exceptions – chain restaurants are struggling to survive or being wiped out completely.

So what happened? Consumer tastes have changed and evolved – what was once fresh and exciting has grown familiar and stale. 

Are chain restaurants therefore by their very definition set to fail? I don’t think so. The sector is definitely going through a period of readjustment, but with careful reflection on where things went wrong, brands can evolve and flourish once again.   

Things to consider…

Too much of a good thing

Whilst it can be convenient to have a Costa or Pret on every high street across the country for coffee or lunch on the go; when it comes to more substantial dining, consumers don’t want to visit one of 500 ‘copy and paste’ restaurants but are rather seeking unique experiences.

It could be argued that many high street chains failed due to expansion fueled by investors need for growth, with little regard for the commercial viability of each location. A ‘unique concept’ delivered to select locations will keep fueling demand and grow the business, but, once there is a ‘branch’ in every town, it is no longer a unique or exciting experience – keep them wanting more! 

Quantity over quality

As soon as a restaurant brand needs to cater on mass, across 20-plus sites, and deliver the same results every time, it is almost impossible to retain an authentic ‘independent status’. 

Scaling up makes it harder to buy fresh local produce, menus need to remain constant and the original ethos and personality can often get lost or diluted as the singular vision that led to the original success ultimately becomes more detached. I think this is one of the areas where Jamie’s Italian fell foul. 

Authenticity

Patisserie Valerie is a prime example of a brand losing its authenticity. Part of its allure was the fact it was a small unique family owned patisserie that people wanted to experience. They grew from 8 – 192 shops in just over a decade – the brand became accessible to everyone but was nothing like the original concept – instead mass producing cakes in the same way as other high street bakeries. 

Failure to evolve

At the heart of a successful food and beverage business is one key thing – a close relationship to who your customers are, what their needs and aspirations are and most importantly how they change over time. To think that you can create a concept, roll it out for ten years and with no significant changes and it still connect with customers in the same way as the original did is simply not the case.

As the bar gets ever higher in our industry, delivering a complete experience for your customers is key. Just like the retail world, trends come and go in the F&B industry – from the food and drinks served to the setting and surroundings – restaurants need to stay fresh and ‘Instagramable’. For real longevity, good design is no longer a nice to have, it’s a must.

The future of the multi-site operator

So what does the future hold? Well, if I really knew the answer to that, I’d probably be a multi-millionaire by now. If we listen to the emerging consumers, the future is ethically sourced produce, socially aware and closely connected in with our communities; and that’s probably a whole other topic of conversation for a future post!