As Bill’s moves forwards with its 2020 refresh programme, MCA market insight director Steve Gotham visits the newly-revamped Baker Street store to assess the changes, and looks what MCA’s customer insight data has to say about the performance of the brand.

If Sherlock Holmes were to take a walk down Baker Street today he would doubtless be struck by the sheer number of restaurants and cafés in and around this thoroughfare. He would surely deduce that to prosper, successful players need to be consistently on the money with a compelling proposition that offered multiple reasons to visit. And also, that they continue to invest in enhancing their relevancy. One of the latest to do so is Bill’s, and it is timely to review the latest update of its 2020 store design and to investigate what MCA’s customer insight data has to say about the performance of the brand.

The first thing that strikes you about the new look Bill’s is the bright exterior. The soft mint green awning has been replaced by a far more eye-catching, vibrant orange version, and added to, with a matching door entrance cover and complementary, (if increasingly ubiquitous), large plastic flowers. The Bill’s brand logo now also stands out more, as does, its revised market positioning as a ‘restaurant & bar.’ Indeed, this provides a clue as to what can be expected internally, with a key objective to make the venue a more attractive evening destination.

The interior design has been overhauled and now aims to exude a more decadent impression, with chandeliers, velvet seating and vintage trinkets. The old-style merchandising approach, that liberally featured jars of jam and chutney and tins of olives and tea, has been jettisoned, but there remain elements of an English quirkiness that is pleasing and which give a nod to Bill’s roots.

The new design is intended to transcend the full breakfast to bedtime spectrum, but the evening is the main business target. The bar area has been upgraded with a more sophisticated look, some dedicated seating and an enhanced offer, with new cocktails and mocktails added. The dinner menu includes new evening specials, such as Steak and Rarebit Pie and Vegan Black Bean Chilli, and a new set menu, with two courses from £17.50 and three from £20.50.

The store closed for a week for the refurbishment and additional staff training, and from my visit at least, the level of customer service and the enthusiasm about the refit and the number of small improvements introduced (including the new crockery, water jugs and menu tweaks) were impressive and very encouraging. For sure, the stronger menu emphasis on vegetarian and meat-free options is very much on trend, and given how a significant proportion of consumers remain very price- and promotion-led, having a competitive, special offer component in the armoury is essential.

With some prevailing concern around too much supply chasing too little demand, it strikes me that having the ability to maximise your touchpoints with customers and to sweat your assets across multiple day-parts is a business advantage. However, this is not right for all cuisine types (not least more cuisine specific and spicier types) and the key challenge remains one of avoiding spreading resources too thinly and losing some specific focus on the potentially more lucrative, evening day-part.

Indeed, when I look at MCA’s Eating Out Panel visitor share data for Bill’s, I see a business firing on several, but by no means all, cylinders. Looked at over the year to June 2019 compared with the previous 12-month period, Bill’s share of visits among chain restaurants has increased at both breakfast and lunch but remained flat at dinner. Bill’s breakfast share stands at 7% and is second only to the much larger, Frankie & Benny’s. Its share of lunch visits is just shy of 2%, and ranks above the likes of Carluccio’s, YO! and GBK. However, at dinner, the share is unmoved at just 1%.

With its upgraded new look store, the more attractive interior, enhanced menu and boosted customer service, Bill’s might well have cracked it. The business knows, however, that the far greater challenge, but far bigger prize, lies with capturing more dinner custom. As Sherlock Holmes said, “the little things are infinitely the most important.” I suspect this is now well appreciated within the business and certainly, with recently reported like-for-likes of 8%, the game is afoot.