While the roll-out of a branded offering is something new for the café-bar and restaurant operator, founder and chairman Alex Reilley tells MCA the roadside concept has great potential and will offer an experience worth stopping for

While the roll-out of a branded offering is something new for the café-bar and restaurant operator, founder and chairman Alex Reilley tells MCA its new roadside concept Brightside has great potential and will offer an experience worth stopping for.

Looking to offer something “distinctly different” from the competition, including more traditional service station offerings, Brightside will be all about taking time out to sit down and have a proper meal, in nice surroundings, and enjoying great hospitality.

First floated as an idea by Reilley around seven years ago, when what was left of Little Chef was being sold off – “I think everyone thought I was joking” – it suddenly gathered pace around two years ago when, mid-pandemic, the operator of Lounge and Cosy Club found the time for a bit of blue-sky thinking about further opportunities within the hospitality space.

The view was that if Loungers were to operate a third brand, it would be better coming from within the business, rather than through an acquisition, given its current success with that formula.

“The idea gained a bit of traction and we started exploring what it might potentially look like,” he explains. “As you can appreciate, it’s quite a different kind of hospitality, certainly in terms of sites […] so we spent a lot of time doing as much research as we possibly could to really inform our decision on whether it was something we should be turning our attention to.” And it was.

What became obvious, was that one of the neatest ways of getting a route to market was through the acquisition of a single or small group of sites – which in turn kick-started conversations with Route Restaurants around 18 months ago, and the agreement of a deal which yesterday saw Loungers announce it would be opening in three of its locations in the South West of England.

The first will open on the A38, south of Exeter, early next year, and will be followed by locations on the A303 near Honiton and the A38 near Saltash, in the spring.

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There was a degree of coincidence in the fact the sites are located not all that far from its head office in Bristol, but Loungers also has a significant presence in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall already and so knows the area well. There is also the obvious advantage of it being an area that sees high tourist footfall in the summer, as well as good local trade.

“We took a lot of comfort from how the three Route Restaurant sites trade throughout the year, and actually how much of the local population use them as their local restaurant.”

While the three upcoming sites made the most sense at the time, Reilley says the business is continuously looking at locations across the country, with future Brightside openings unlikely to be concentrated in the same area. “We’re looking at opportunities in the Midlands and East Anglia. We’ll probably need to spread our tentacles fairly far and wide in terms of unlocking the right kind of opportunities.”

Loungers believe these opportunities will come from a mix of single standalone sites, such as former Little Chef and Happy Eater restaurants, and new build locations… and ideally next to a petrol station forecourt offering EV charging points in order to take advantage of the move away from petrol and diesel vehicles and the growing need for consumers to have longer stops to ‘refuel’.

While its first opening, “regrettably” won’t offer EV charging, its second has it in place and its third location is having it installed.

While he concedes there is a lot of activity going on in roadside locations currently, now that Loungers can speak more openly about what they are doing, and what it’s going to look like, Reilley is hopeful that developers of roadside opportunities will see the potential of having something that’s a bit different.

“What tends to happen is a development site is earmarked, they have four or five units on there, and the units almost let themselves to the usual suspects. But they’re all pretty much doing the same thing, and we clearly want to represent an alternative.”

Brightside restaurants will offer in excess of 100 covers internally, and table service experience, with Loungers keen also make the most of outside space, particularly in areas such as the south Exeter site which is located in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

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Loungers considered whether to offer take away or add a drive-thru but decided that a fully-seated site was the way to go and they are keen not to dilute the very reason the brand was created in the first place.

“It will be something very different to pretty much everything else that’s available,” Reilley says. While the likes of Little Chef had their hey day in the 70s and 80s, their failure wasn’t down to the fact that people didn’t want to sit down for longer than five minutes, but because the business got stuck in “a rather sad tragic time warp”. “It never really evolved and didn’t respond to the fact that people’s tastes were changing and they needed to be better and couldn’t trade off the nostalgic sentiment that people had for them.”

As Reilley says, a lot of businesses that are now operating in former Little Chef and Happy Eater sites are really successful businesses.

In terms of the menu, Loungers has started with a blank piece of paper. Rather than just lifting things off one menu straight onto another, they have effectively ring-fenced a team of people that are working on the food development side, so it doesn’t just end up slightly tweaking what it has done before.

“We learnt when we launched Cosy Club as a second brand it had too many similarities to a Lounge and we have arguably spent the past 10 years or so diverging the two brands ever further, and I think we want to make sure Brightside has a distinctly different feel about it.”

Breakfast is one area that Reilley is confident will be particularly strong for them, as will burgers. “For us the big thing that we are doing which we haven’t done before is pizza,” he says. It’s something that gets asked about a lot but is logistically hard to introduce to a kitchen operation if you don’t already have pizza ovens.

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Ultimately, it’s about offering crowd-pleasing dishes that are executed with exceptional quality and speed of delivery – “because we recognise that while we are asking people to come in and take time out, they don’t want to sit there for hours, they probably want to be in and out within 45 minutes”.

More and more people are going down the route of buying electric vehicles. “People are going to have to stop. This is behavioural change, whether you like it or not,” he says.

“People will start to think about their journey not necessarily being dictated by how quickly they can get from A to B, but actually what they need to do in order to get from A to B, and if they have to stop, where they’re going to stop and have an experience which makes the fact they have to stop bearable.

“We will offer, we believe, something considerably more inspiring as somewhere to stop for food and drinks than you would get in a service station or grabbing a coffee and sitting in your car.”

The challenge for Loungers is going to be getting the message out there.

Up until now the business has been “fairly anti-brand”, in that its sites are individually named and have their own characteristics, reflecting as much as they can about the heritage of the building and the town they are in.

Not to mention the fact that when opening on a high street you can simply put up some hoarding and promote yourselves to the local area and, low and behold, people come in.

“For this we needed to have something which is instantly recognisable. So, from a branding perspective it’s been a really interesting challenge for us because we’re being asked to take ourselves out of our comfort area and develop something that’s actually almost the complete opposite of what we do currently, but we feel we’ve got a really strong brand.

“It looks great on the side of the road, and we think it’s going to be something which people will recognise. But clearly getting the message out there is going to be a big, big challenge. It’s about understanding our core customer as they might live nowhere near where we’re located.”

While publicity has now kicked off with the launch of the concept this week… “the next big step is actually getting one up and running”.

With Loungers track record of openings, that surely won’t be a problem.

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