British restaurant concepts are gaining ground, and it’s nothing to do with the queen or the Olympics, says Mel Flaherty.

Even those without the slightest interest in the monarchy and who think the Olympics are a very expensive inconvenience will just have to get used to the fact that Britain and all things British are in the spotlight this year, particularly over the summer.

In the eating-out arena, historically, our nation has not always had the best reputation. But a whole host of factors - increased travel, better quality ingredients, greater consumer awareness, media representation and changing leisure habits - have helped raise standards and enabled Britain to improve its competitiveness in the world food rankings.

That British restaurants Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and the Ledbury scooped the Highest New Entry and Highest Climber awards, at numbers nine and 14 respectively in the 2012 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (organised by M&C Report’s sister title Restaurant magazine) is just one example.

Despite such achievements, there is still some way to go before the general perception of Britain’s food, and service, matches its actual improved standard. The extra visitors the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Olympics are expected to attract (320,000 extra overseas visitors and 580,000 extra domestic tourists to London just for the Olympics) will provide a good platform to prove just how good the British restaurant scene has become.

A sustainable trend
Horizons, the foodservice consultancy, recently identified Britishness as a growth trend for restaurateurs in its Ones to Watch analysis of brands based on innovation, size and growth rate.

“The current interest in Britishness [in foodservice] is not down to the Olympics, it is more related to these times of austerity measures and the subsequent attraction of all things retro, traditional and with comfort and family appeal,” says Paul Backman, Horizons’ director of services. “It is also related to the trends we are seeing in local sourcing of foods and provenance now that people are so much more conscious about traceability. In the consumer’s mind, locally sourced food supports local producers and equals healthier, quality food that is not transported so far and so is also better for the environment.”

The Horizons report named Canteen, the now five-strong London-based British casual-dining chain, as one of the fastest growing operators in this small but increasingly significant sub-sector.

Also, in April, Mark Bittman, chief food writer at The New York Times, said in his column that Canteen’s outlet at the Royal Festival Hall is his favourite place to eat British food in London.

“We see ‘British’ as being under-represented across the UK [restaurant scene], especially at an affordable price point,” says Dominic Lake, one of the founders of the business. “We spent two years researching the market before we opened our first site and found that you could not get good quality British food at a reasonable price all day in one location - you could, say, get a good British breakfast at a place, but it stopped at 11.30am. What we offer transcends all age ranges and day parts.”

Average spend per head ranges from £6 to £20, depending on the time of day, and average weekly turnover by site is around the £40,000 mark. The firm is thinking about taking on a finance partner to help it realise its ambitions to expand at a rate of about two sites a year until it reaches circa 15 units.

Lake says that one of the biggest challenges of offering a truly British menu is to ensure that traditional dishes are made contemporary, but without letting in influences from other European cuisines.

“London is such an international place, but we don’t want to be all things to all people, we want to be very clearly defined, which requires a lot of hands-on management, especially when looking at menu development,” he explains.

The menu offers daily roasts, all-day breakfasts and other traditional classics such as macaroni cheese, Lancashire hotpot and sausage and mash.

Emphasising Britishness
Living Ventures’ (LV) eight-strong Blackhouse chain was also highlighted by Horizons as a British restaurant concept to watch. With a strong emphasis on steak, the chain is pitched at the higher end of the market compared to Canteen, commanding an average spend of around £30 a head. Unit sizes and types of locations vary, hence average weekly turnover ranges across the chain from circa £20,000 to £60,000.

LV’s co-founder and managing director, Tim Bacon, says the company is repositioning the brand to put more emphasis on its British offer. The Smithfield restaurant will be relaunched in August with a design overhaul and menu tweaks that will then be rolled out across the chain.

“At the moment the restaurants are quite ‘boutique’ and don’t have much brand value, so we want to bring Blackhouse and what that stands for to the fore, while still retaining a local feel,” Bacon explains. “There tends to be too much of a fascination with foreign food, but some of the best food in the world comes from Britain and there is nothing wrong with doing something for the ‘home crowd’.

“Provenance and home-grown resonates with the marketplace a lot more than it used to and that has always been at the heart of what we do,” he adds. “There is a lot of focus on these values particularly this year, but we need to make sure that stays relevant going forward.”

British and bullish
Bacon says LV is in discussions regarding further sites for Blackhouse and will open another a restaurant in Oxford in the first quarter of next year then another London site in the middle of 2013 - discussions are underway for a possible site either in the City or the West End.

Blackhouse outlets typically cost £1.2m to create and occupy 6,000sq ft with a bar capacity of 120 and similar figure in the restaurant.

Another restaurant concept with Britishness at its heart is Ignite Group’s Bumpkin. The brand now has three sites - in Notting Hill, South Kensington and Westfield Stratford. Ignite has previously said it is in talks for a further outlet in the City and that there could be further opportunities to expand within the M25.

In addition, all eyes are on Jamie Oliver’s Union Jacks flat breads with British toppings concept, now operating at Chiswick, Central St Giles Piazza, Winchester and soon Covent Garden in London

There would appear to be plenty of room in the eating-out market for more ‘true blue’ British restaurant concepts, and there is certainly enormous opportunity to benefit from the buzz for all things British, particularly this year.

The 11th annual British Food Fortnight has been brought forward from its usual autumn slot to 27 July to 12 August, to coincide with the Olympics.

This year’s campaign is entitled Love British Food (www.lovebritishfood.co.uk) and the organisers have plenty of examples of businesses that have increased sales via its past promotions through a range of activities such as putting on special British menus or hosting tasting events.

Fuller’s Pubs and Enterprise Inns are among the operators already committed to taking part in the fortnight this year, which, with two iconic national events, has the potential to be the most high profile for the campaign yet.