Inside Track by Peter Martin
There is a real confidence these days among British restaurant operators. It manifested itself earlier this month at the MUFSO conference in Los Angeles, the United States’ biggest chain restaurant forum. For the first time UK operators were invited to take part in a panel to highlight the business opportunities in the UK for US investors and operators, as well as the openings British players saw for their concepts in the US. I chaired the discussion. It has to be said that not too many American delegates turned up to listen – most are still content to look no further than their own backyard to trade in. Much more important was the realisation of all those involved in the session, as panellists and attendees, that the UK concepts represented – Wagamama, Yo! Sushi, Caffe Nero, La Tasca, Frankie & Benny’s, Chez Gerard and Living Room – were every bit as good as the new "hot" US concepts presented to the conference just the day before. Four years ago when the first organised group of UK operators attended MUFSO, then in Atlanta, there was an expectation that we were there to learn from our American cousins, and we weren’t disappointed. Cheesecake Factory, Panera Bread, Baja Fresh, Bahama Breeze and PF Changs all wowed us. They still do, but Britain has caught up. We are now just as innovative and creative as our US cousins at developing sustainable concepts. We also know it, and increasingly have the confidence to take those brands to new international markets. Wagamama is in Holland, Australia and the Gulf, Yo! has opened in Greece and Dubai, while La Tasca has taken on the States itself. It is important to see the UK restaurant market in its international context, and that is one of the themes we will be developing at this week’s annual Martin Information Restaurant Conference in London. Wagamama, Yo! and Compass, the UK’s and the world’s largest caterer, will all be represented on the panel, along with South African operator Ciao Baby Cucino and top US food expert Nancy Kruse. The UK can, and should, continue to learn from the US and other foreign markets, but there is much that can be learned from UK players too. The opportunity is there now for a more equal exchange of views and experiences, particularly across the Atlantic. oThe confidence of the British restaurant business also seems to be rubbing off on investors. The deal market for restaurant chains appears as healthy as ever. The grapevine has it that three bids are now in for Tragus, the Café Rouge and Bella Italia operator, currently up for sale, while Urban Dining is set to launch itself with a double deal, supposedly buying both Tootsies and Ma Potters. More at the Restaurant Conference no doubt, where another investor keen to do deals, former PizzaExpress boss David Page will be speaking.