As a foodie, I think the right meal, at the right time, can be one of the best things in life. Like eating a Maccys on the upper deck of a night bus at 3am can be as great as dining at a Michelin Star restaurant. But what’s happening to the mid-level restaurants and why aren’t people casually dining as they once were?
A BBC report stated that burger chain Byron agreed a rescue plan with lenders and landlords that could lead to the closure of up to 20 restaurants. Also in January, Jamie Oliver’s restaurant group said 12 of its 37 outlets would shut their doors. This is down to a few factors all hitting the chains at once.
The rise of the food delivery companies
A few weeks ago I witnessed an UberEats vehicle pull up to an office in Farringdon and deliver someone a croissant (I mean come on!). This is extreme, but if it’s possible, who’s going to say no to getting their breakfast literally delivered to their bed?
The rise of services like Deliveroo and UberEats means restaurant quality food is within reach wherever you are. But on the flip side, expensive retail units are standing empty, losing out on added extras like alcohol and service charges, and then there’s the cut given to the delivery services themselves.
Cynics would argue that restaurants are responsible for their own demise by joining up to these platforms, but then again, how can they not?
The burger has boomed!
Way back in 2012, I remember queuing for hours outside Meat Liquor in Soho to eat some delicious juicy, meaty buns in a pitch black room. Suddenly there was a burger joint on every corner; from, Burger & Lobster to Dirty Burger, Lucky Chip and Bleeker St, (and I’m sure there’s about 20 more). This oversaturation and the upward trend of people eating healthier is a recipe for disaster for places like Byron.
The price of everything has gone up
It’s something we’re very accustomed to these days – but for the food industry it means imported food from our European friends is more expensive than ever. Restaurants are now feeling the pinch because of the weak pound, having to make cuts on the quality of the produce and service.
The need to keep costs down has meant cuts on quality. According to a report from The Guardian Jamie’s Italian was once associated with the same meat supplier as JD Weatherspoons, a bit of a difference to an Italian cut of meat that’s been roaming around in a field for a few months.
In addition to this, staff and rent costs have shot up and apparently far less people are eating out.
So how should the struggling casual dining brands respond?
Appeal to millennials
Judging by my Instagram feed, I don’t know about you, but it seems like people are eating out constantly. But where they choose to eat is another thing. People are on the look out for experiences and will pay to go somewhere that they can gain social kudos, Instagram has changed the restaurant scene for millennials, according to research by Zizzi, 18-35-year-olds spend five whole days a year browsing food images on Instagram, and 30 per cent would avoid a restaurant if their Instagram presence was weak.
They need a restaurant that looks good, from the food to the drinks (and in some cases, even the loos). Richard Robinson, Co-Founder of Old Spike and one of my favourite restaurants in Peckham, Coal Rooms, told me:
‘We know, people eat with their eyes and Instagram is a great platform to engage with customers and show our delicious food. It’s interesting the role different social media platforms play but more and more, it is the way people communicate and engage with Coal Rooms so it’s important we stay on top of it.’
To this point, mid-level chains need to entice the new generation of diners into their restaurants in new ways. It would also be an idea to think about burgers in an Instagram friendly way, maybe even ask people to vote for the day’s burger choice on Instagram stories. They could create a new burger every day voted for by the customers, those who vote would get a discount. Crowd sourcing the menu would also give customers control over what they want to eat.
Be more open to change
Restaurants need to socially engage customers in more meaningful ways than ever – they need to experiment with the food trends that are happening right now. If people are eating healthier then why not give them healthier burgers for example, or healthier alternatives to buns? The reason why Wagamama has done so well is because it has constantly adapted its menus and offering to respond to the latest consumer and food trends.
In New York I travelled to Williamsburg to a small food festival called Smorgasberg and tried a Ramen burger. Could a burger chain like Byron do small takeovers with healthier burger alternatives to get people popping in? For the gym goers could burger joints partner with places like GymBox and reward customers with a free lunch when they’ve worked off over 300 calories?
Be more than just a RESTAURANT
Restaurants can be cool places to hang out and can be used for different things at various points in the day too. With freelancing becoming ever popular there are neat little tricks to appeal to people who need a mobile office in the middle of town. Why just stick to the food?
Having had particular success with the Coal Room site, Robinson went on to say:
‘Without doubt, great food is not enough – there are so many other facets that play into the success of a site (too many to list here!). What works for us very well and again, is partly as a result of our location is our ability to make the site work hard throughout all hours of the day. If it was just a restaurant (i.e evening service only) – we would be in a very different situation but the fact we operate as a cafe during the day and later in the year, a cocktail bar upstairs – allows us to be more than just about a nice meal out.’
For Byron, it seems like it’s gone into a posh fast food category. Why not turn the restaurants into destinations and offer up things to keep people in for longer on a evening? Live music, events, talks and make it free entry when you dine.
When we don’t want to sit in, we want to grab and go and fast we want to do it fast! For a quick, but delicious lunch, being able to to pre-order in the digital places that customers are already familiar with online would be a simple solution. Like a What’s App or Facebook messenger ordering system would be a speedy solution.
We also know that provenance is of real importance to customers these days, could we create an AR app that customers hold over their burgers, enabling them to see where the ingredients are sourced from, which farm the beef is from and the nutritional value of their meal?
Could Byron make the burger a more fun thing to eat and create? Robotic flippers could enable customers to flip their own burgers in the kitchen, and yes, they do exist: https://edition.cnn.com/videos/cnnmoney/2018/03/06/flippy-burger-grilling-robot-fast-food-orig.cnn
So what should these chains do?
These mid-level chains can do one of two things – they can ride it out and as these things seem to be cyclical you can predict things will pick up in the next 5 years or so. They may have to downscale somewhat to accommodate the changes in the sector but they’ll survive.
Or they can do something about it and adapt to the way people are living their lives and behaving in the modern age by doing things like:
-Being open to change and adapt your space or your model to customer needs. Do something in the downtime that attracts new audiences.
-Cut costs and speed up service by utilising technology. Think about new, quick, easy methods of payment and automation.
-Involve and reward the customer with a unique and unforgettable experience that set you apart from the competition.
Dani Brown is a creative at independent creative agency, Atomic London.