Inside Track by Peter Martin
How much can we learn from the USA? It’s now a regularly asked question, and rightly so. Regular readers of this column will know that the US is not immune from delivering bad service or even the odd dire experience, but all the Brits in Los Angeles last week for the one of the States’ biggest chain restaurant conferences will confirm that the American restaurant market still has plenty to offer – as well as the ability to inspire. There was plenty on the agenda at Nation’s Restaurant News’ Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators conference, or MUFSO for short, for those of us over from Britain on the Peach Factory tour. There was star speaker Danny Meyer, one of New York’s legendary restaurateurs and the man behind that city’s revered Union Square Café, urging us to provide not just good service but real hospitality for our customers. There was Jim Sullivan, chain restaurant guru, with a penetrating insight into how to inspire and engage area managers in building your brand. There were the Hot Concept award winners – especially the effervescent Jeff Sinelli, the entrepreneurial founder of the Which Wich sandwich chain. There was Nancy Kruse, menu trend guru, on the impact of freshness, flavour, health, authenticity and the “green” agenda on US eating habits. Away from the conference, there was any number of LA restaurants with ideas to pick-up, including the ever consistent Houston’s chain – long a benchmark that British operators have measured themselves against. One basic conclusion we could all draw is that many of the issues affecting the US are also playing out in the UK market – if at different times and with different intensity. So watch out for potential legislation on nutritional information on your menus – it’s already an issue States-side. But that apart, do we really need these regular injections of US insight and go-getting inspiration? Do we really need to be told how to gain business “traction” and “velocity”, when our home-grown brands are these days doing pretty well on their side of the Atlantic? The simple answer is “yes”. The point was underlined just an hour or so after stepping off the flight home and stopping for a quick bite at a newly refurbished food-pub from one of the major chains. What a disappointment. As we walked through the door there was no-one to greet us, no-one at the bar, just no staff to be seen. It suffered from that new disease of not knowing whether it was a pub or a restaurant and certainly not telling the customer which it was. When some-one did appear at the bar and we asked how the system worked, we were greeted with that brusque British attitude that borders on rudeness, being told to find a table and order at the bar. “Where were the menus”, we asked? “On the table”, we were told. “But there’s not one here”, we said pointing to the nearest table. “No, because that’s not set for lunch”, we were informed, as if we were the stupid ones and should have known that. Set for lunch, by the way, meant a tin full of cutlery on the table. There was a “specials” board, which no one thought to point out – we only saw that when we left later. We were not the only ones bemused – a number of couples subsequently arrived and shuffled around a while not knowing whether to sit down or wait to be seated. “A table for two?”, one pair enquired, and were told to sit where they liked by a passing waiter and left to fend for themselves. Oh, the joy. How to value customers. How to create a great experience. How to provide outstanding hospitality. Welcome back to Britain and service with indifference. Yes, we can still learn from the US. Peter Martin is the co-creator of M&C Report and founder of Peach Factory.