Keep it fresh and buck the casual dining trend

IT HAS been a dreadful year for the UK casual dining sector with some of the UK’s best-known chains cutting back severely or closing altogether.

There has been a perfect storm of over-supply, too much predictability and a public that’s choosing carefully where to spend its increasingly hard-earned cash. No surprise then that the best performers in the sector have been businesses that have bravely embraced change and given the public something different.

Despite the problems with the High street chains, Whitco’s Amanda McGeavy has worked with businesses that have developed a vision of what they wanted and followed through on their plans. The results have justified the commitment involved.

Says Amanda: “The leisure sector – destinations, garden centres and the like - have been bucking the general downward trend for a long time.  That’s because the best of them have been willing to reinvent themselves on a regular basis.”

When they are choosing somewhere to eat as a couple or a family, diners are looking for destinations that offer something different. And with the right ambition and plan, destinations can naturally fit the bill.”

It’s two years since Amanda worked with the Tropical Butterfly House in Sheffield to help realise their aspirations for a coffee shop that would appeal to a passing market.

Says Amanda: I’d known Kim Belis, the owner, professionally for a long time. We talked at Glee about their plans to create a coffee house. They were looking for something on the lines of a Costa, that would be used by those who fancied a quick coffee and a cake – without visiting the Butterfly House.”  The plan for Lottie’s Coffee Lounge (named after the owner’s daughter) called for the conversion of an old work-shed into something far more stylish, set out over two floors with bare brick, planked flooring, funky lighting, wood furniture and plenty of natural light. The results have been spectacular – stylistically and commercially.
Amanda, left, adds: “I have worked in the industry for years and my advice to businesses is to look to their USP and exploit it. There is no point in following the High Street – it’s closing down.”

The figures bear her out. With hospitality generating anything up to 40 per cent of income for a leisure business, food is a key revenue generator. And the benefits of a bold reinvention of the experience can pay handsome dividends. One of Amanda’s recent projects has seen a turnover of £300,000 to £400,000 increased to something nearer a million, following a stylish rebranding. And all this in the casual dining market, where international brands are failing spectacularly.

She is clear about what’s required: “Successful business are not afraid to spend and to challenge themselves to keep up to date. It’s all about looking at your operation and refreshing and rebranding. Kitchen equipment must be maintained or replaced. Furniture gets tired and worn out. People will move on if they don’t get a good experience. Their expectations have increased too, as the bar has been raised. You can’t just offer jacket potatoes and paninis and hope to succeed.

“On the plus side, when you get it right, the rewards are terrific. We have customers who say they have diners who breakfast with them seven days a week, for example.

“A successful catering operation will turn a seasonal business to a 52-weeks-a year operation. Running a garden centre and running a café or restaurant calls for a different set of skills. My advice is always to start with a five-year plan and then to work with my customers to achieve their aims. It’s amazing how many of them get to their targets long before the planned timescale.”

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