We went to the cinema last week to see The Post – a great film on the back of a really great book, the autobiography of Katherine Graham. The cinema is right next door to Stadium MK and numerous casual dining restaurants including Bella Italia, TGI Friday’s, Chimichanga, Prezzo and PizzaExpress. It’s no different to numerous shopping centre and leisure parks around the UK in terms of its number of places to eat – it’s a familiar mix.
Of course, it’s all been said before; the casual dining sector is possibly in the same sort of state the pub market was in a few years ago – too much supply and not enough differentiation. It’s a really difficult situation. No one in the sector wants to see fellow operators closing restaurants, going into administration, calling in advisors and having to lay-off staff. It’s a very supportive sector with an in-depth understanding of the current issues – “there but for the grace of God”.
One of the issues for these casual dining brands is differentiation. Price points are pretty much the same, the food on the plate is pretty much the same (even though it may have different geographical origins), back-of-house is the same, the food supply chain is the same, the service proposition is similar and the interiors can all feel slightly too similar. They could all probably be served by the same back-of-house kitchens, processes and systems to a greater or lesser extent.
There are, though, casual dining brands that are bucking the trend as we know – Nando’s, Wagamama, Bistrot Pierre, perhaps PizzaExpress lately, The Breakfast Club, Dishoom, Pizza Union, Brasserie Blanc, Pho, Flat Iron – it isn’t a finite list. So why are these brands doing ok while others are suffering? It’s the obvious question.
At the heart of many successful brands there is a deep-rooted sense of brand origins and a feeling among the management team it is a custodian of the brand, nurturing it through for the next generation. It’s an emotional feeling perhaps – a real reverence and care about where, and how, the brand started.
It’s in their DNA to treat the brand foundations with respect. The brand is genuine and it communicates that internally and, through its team members, to its customers. It is in its DNA and that DNA acts as a checklist for all the brand is doing – all activity is then totally aligned. Going back to a brand’s roots and the reason for its launch in the first place can often help revitalise a brand that has lost its way.
This brand purpose carries through into every element of the brand – most noticeably into the quality of its food and pride in its presentation. If the food is right and reflects the values of the brand, then the back-of-house and front-of-house teams feel proud to serve it. They want to put food in front of customers that they believe in – “serve and run” dishes harm the whole organisation.
This, in turn, helps the whole service proposition. Servers who love the brand and love the food they serve seem somehow to be happier, more confident and more relaxed. Or perhaps that’s just me? Asking customers if they have a voucher before they take an order must feel slightly demotivating – do their efforts really count for so little?
I think successful brands have a virtuous circle. Their teams respect their brand’s heritage and foundations, they reflect those in all they do and so do their teams. In turn, customers appreciate it too and then recommend it to friends and family. How these brands cope with today’s difficult challenges and changing customer needs is a subject for another day – but they must be in a better place to start with.