This week’s Diary reveals the latest plans from London Union; welcomes Rod McKie to Sticks ‘n’ Sushi; finds out about a golf course in a pub and explains why M Restaurants is taking a leaf out of EasyJet’s book:

Polpo pizza

Jonathan Downey has previously spoken about London Union opening a site in Lewisham, but it appears that plans have been cut back, although they still sound very interesting. He tells our sister publication Restaurant that the company is working with long-term Street Feast trader Breddos Tacos for its first permanent restaurant, on the site of a former theatre in Lewisham. Called Pocho, it will be a large Californian/Mexican influenced diner. The neighbouring site, also owned by London Union, will be home to a new pizza concept from Polpo.

McMullen expands it range

Skittle alleys in pubs are an age-old tradition but there can’t be many with their own driving range. However, Hertfordshire pub operator McMullen has rectified this oversight with its new build site at Chadwell Springs, Ware which is due to open in the autumn.  It will include a driving range, Par 3 golf course, pitch and putt and golf shop alongside the pub restaurant. The company is currently recruiting for a manager, whose targets will include ensuring food accounts for over 50% of the takings, and covers are over 1,500 main meals a week.  The advert continues: “An interest in golf would be beneficial as there will potentially be involvement in the management of the facility.”   

Card sell

Vapiano, the four-strong Italian fresh casual dining group, is taking a leaf out of a bit of US marketing this weekend coming to spread a bit of brand awareness. This Sunday, the group, which is thought to be close to securing a site in London’s West End, will launch a ‘Send a Card to a Friend Day’ initiative. The group has printed postcards which will be given to all guests to fill out the story on the back and post it in a Vapiano branded ‘Send a Card to a Friend Day’ box. Vapiano will then post all cards, first class on Monday to the recipients. The idea behind it is to get the group’s tech-obsessed young guests, who are constantly on their phones, to write a postcard, many for the first time.  The friend will receive this and chances are will snapchat / tweet / Instagram the postcard tagging in the friend which has the potential for Vapiano to reach thousands more people.

Bar and the brasserie

Last November, YO! Sushi opened its first bar at its new Chelmsford site. It was a holding bar built at the entrance of the venue. Diary hears that Cote, BC Partners-backed chain, is going to follow suit by putting a bar into its upcoming site in Lincoln. The group is investing £1m in refurbishing the former Craft bar in the city. Josie Price, Cote’s marketing manager, said: “We are going to put a bar in, which has not been done before. It is to make best use of the space, and we wanted to do something different, so people can come in downstairs, sit down have a drink, then progress to upstairs.”

A Welcome appointment

Welcome Break chief executive Rod McKie has joined the board of Sticks ’n’ Sushi as it gears up for further growth. Andreas Karlsson, UK managing director of the Danish restaurant group which focuses on sushi and yakitori, told M&C McKie would be an invaluable source of advice as the group gears up for its first openings outside of London – in Cambridge and Oxford. He said: “He’s got great experience within the industry and it’s really encouraging to have his support as grow”.  Siri Lande, senior vice president of Danske Bank, has also joined the board. The group, which already operates in Wimbledon, Covent Garden, Greenwich and Canary Wharf, is set to open its next site in Cambridge’s Guidlhall in May, followed by Nova in London’s Victoria in the autumn and Westgate in Oxford next year.

Talking about a revolution

At yesterday’s Imbiba investor conference, Sarah Weir, the managing director of Brooklyn-inspired bar concept, Ruth & Robinson explained the inspiration for the project. She said: “I have watched the revolution in our industry over the last ten years. I have seen the explosion in ideas and concepts and the transformation of eating and drinking in the UK. First in casual dining and gastro pubs then in coffee shops and fast casual and now in pop-ups and street markets. It’s exciting, it’s non-strop and it’s world class. I waited for the same innovation in bars but it didn’t come and that’s when I heard the music. My vision is creating bars with that same level of creativity, vision and energy that we have seen in the rest of the market.” She said this vision had inspired Project Paradise – “the new direction for Ruth & Robinson”. After its inaugural site in Clerkenwell was sold to BrewDog the company is now looking for new locations. Weir said the company’s hitlist spanned Shepherd’s Bush, Queen’s Park, Camden, Kings Cross, Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Bermondsey and Brixton. She described the targets as “areas that are in the ascendancy - where regeneration has taken place”.

Battersea calling

At the same event Mel Marriott, managing director of Darwin & Wallace, gave an update on the company’s growth plans, including opening its fourth site – the former All Bar One site in Chiswick – in the next ten weeks. Her announcement that the fifth site in Battersea would be at an ‘undisclosed location’ sparked a few titters around the room. Diary wasn’t in on the joke but is there some sort of high-profile development due to come on line in Battersea soon?

Marriott also discussed some new innovations for the group in 2016, including a new loyalty card allowing seasonal promotions across all sites and a specific Breakfast Club promotion. The company is also offering a service called ‘Cocktails Al Desco’, in which drinks are hand-delivered to local businesses every Friday afternoon with empties returned receiving a complimentary glass of Prosecco.

Fancy a lock-in?

The event was hosted by Imbiba partner Fraser Bradshaw and its opening speaker was serial leisure entrepreneur John Connell. Bradshaw introduced Imbiba’s chairman by sharing the tale of how he had first come to see the Banking Hall. He said: “John told me I had to come and see this fantastic venue. I remember coming through those magnificent doors and seeing the hall in front of us and as the door slammed shut behind us, John asking – ‘have you got the keys’. We got to know each other very well during that site visit.”

M Restaurants’ airline tech takes off

M Restaurants’ introduction of an airline style ‘choose your seat’ booking tool helped drive a 31% hike in like-for-like sales during December. The technology uses drone-style technology to allow customers to virtually walk round the restaurant and book the table they want to dine at – or if they’re a regular customer, their favourite table. In December 9% of customers booked using this function.  The feature has evolved for the recent opening of M Victoria Street, where guests dining in larger groups will be given the opportunity to book a booth, as well as a table if they prefer. Founder Martin Williams said: “Diners in London are the most experienced and discerning in the world. I firmly believe that dining should be a relaxing, bespoke experience, which can last as short, or long as the guest wishes. Many restaurants give diners a short time slot in which to enjoy their meal – a policy that is the opposite of a positive dining experience. At M, we are leading the way to redefine heightened hospitality. After you choose your own table; when you dine at M, the table is yours for as long as you wish.”

The Inn Crowd

M&A activity in the coaching inn market continues to flourish with two key deals this week. The George in St George’s Road, near the city centre, has been purchased by the Cotswolds Inns and Hotels Group off a guide price of £4m. Vendors Jeremy and Alison Shaw were represented by Colliers International. Meanwhile, The Coaching Inn Group has continued its rapid expansion with the acquisition of the Kings Head in Richmond from Ashdale Hotels, off an asking price of £2m. The deal is part of the group’s £20 million expansion plan, which will see it acquire five more sites this year.  Working with the existing management team, the Coaching Inn Group plans to invest up to £1m in the property over the next 12 months.

Best in class

Congratulations to Revolution Bar Group, which appears Sunday Times ‘Top 100 Best Companies to Work For’ list for the ninth year in a row. The Mark McQuater-led group is not giving away its position on the list but has said it has been awarded an ‘outstanding’ two-star accreditation level, seeing an improvement on its 2015 rating. The company said key to its success was its Purpose, Vision and Values statements, which all team members were involved in updating earlier this year. The business has also created its own career development tool, called My Career Portfolio (“MCP”). This supports team members throughout their career, incorporating mentoring, external training with key partners such as Dale Carnegie, coaching, project work and ongoing feedback on performance. 

Stat attack

Dorset based brewer and pub operator Hall & Woodhouse has released its first ever benchmarking report. The report has been compiled using data supplied by its tenants over the past 18 months, and features price benchmarking on key products as well as the operating costs associated with running a Hall & Woodhouse pub, with comparisons against the sector as a whole. Key statistics from the report show that Hall & Woodhouse Business Partners have an average net turnover of £418,000 and achieve an average wet GP of 56% and Dry GP of 63%. Chris Chapman, Business Partnerships commercial manager, said:  “We are very pleased that we were able to produce this benchmarking report to support our Business Partners. It allows them to compare the pricing of their Public House to similar businesses and see where they have the room to alter their prices and maximise their profits, it also demonstrates their performance against similar sites nationwide. It’s a valuable tool that we believe will help existing Business Partners to improve their profitability and also help attract new Business Partners to work with us.”

Friends no more

The Central Perk franchise, based on the coffee shop featured on popular US sitcom Friends has closed its three sites. The Chester, Bold Street and Hatton Gardens stores are permanently closed and have sold off the Friends-themed fixtures in a silent auction. A post on Central Perk Chester’s Facebook page read; “we would like to thank you, our loyal patrons, for the past two years of quality custom, support and enjoyment of our premises. We have thoroughly enjoyed meeting and serving you and regret that our Chester store must close permanently due to increased business rates imposed by Cheshire West Council as well as an increased rental amount for the premises, both of which are extensive and cost prohibitive.” The two Liverpool stores have been taken over by independent owners who are converting the sites into American TV & Music themed Café Bar Ameriesko and absorbing Central Perk’s staff.