Inside Track by Peter Martin
A couple of days in the USA, and any doubts about learning from American operators are quickly dispelled. The US can still teach us a thing or two about running restaurants – and not always the obvious things either. The UK may be up with the best when it comes to new concept creation, but for lessons in implementing ideas the States still has plenty to offer. Last week, I was in Chicago taking a group of British restaurant and pub operators to meet up with two of that city’s most successful and entrepreneurial restaurant groups, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and Levy Restaurants. Neither is what we might call a conventional US group; neither is in the business of rolling out big branded chains. One-off concepts are more to their forte. Both are innovators and experts in building partnerships. Levy, which was recently bought out completely by our own Compass Group, is a $750m turnover operation with most of its business in the sports arena and attraction food market, with clients ranging from national football and baseball sides to Disney. One of the next big contracts will be the O2 arena and sports facility in London, which is being developed on the site of the former Millennium Dome, in Greenwich. Lettuce Entertain You is Chicago’s foremost restaurant company and runs over 30 individual eating-out concepts. Only Big Bowl, its Thai and Chinese casual dining concept, which it recently bought back from the Brinker Group, could be classed as a chain, with eight locations. The refreshing aspect of meeting the Lettuce and Levy teams is to forget the US stereotype. You can create quality and profit without having to have a “killer” brand. They also demonstrate that you can successfully run everything from food courts to fine dining within a single organisation. The secret, of course, is people. Service culture is part of the American make-up and something the British still have to learn. Even the most up-market restaurants will put the customers’ needs ahead of what might normally be considered good taste. If a diner always wants two lumps of ice in his or her red wine, not only will they be delighted to comply but will log it on the database to ensure it is remembered next time they visit. In Britain a diner making a similar request would be more likely to be shown the door. What Lettuce, in particular, brings to the table is the ability and structure to share success within the company. The general rule is for each of its individual restaurant concepts – which range from Wow Bao, an Asian bao takeaway, to Tru, one the most expensive fine dining experiences in town – to be created and operated as a partnership, with senior managers taking a stake in the business and hence a real interest in its success or failure. Without going through the finer details, the model is one that UK companies looking for both expansion and a way to tie in their best talent would do well to look at. The USA, even on a short trip, continues to provide new, and sometimes unexpected, inspiration. But to get the full effect, you still need to go there and experience first hand. The willingness to learn from others, and adapt their ideas too, was another lesson the Americans were also quick to hand on. Peter Martin is founder of M&C Report and the Peach Factory consultancy