Inside Track by Peter Martin
How do you make money in the restaurant business? First, come up with an exciting, and appealing new concept. Well, maybe? M&C Report’s annual Restaurant Conference – this year renamed the Eating Out conference to reflect the increasing breadth of the market – had no shortage of new operations to talk about, and possibly inspire. But there was also an underlying realism that being innovative and creative is only part of the story, no matter how ambitious the entrepreneur. Industry consultant and former SSP executive Ian Daly, who is now working with a number of emerging brands, made the pertinent observation that many of the UK’s most successful chains over recent years had been led by people with a background in corporate life behind them. Wagamama, Loch Fyne and La Tasca all spring to mind as concepts launched by creative people, but which only achieved commercial success under the leadership of executives with experience and skills gained in "big companies" – especially in the art of rolling out a concept towards critical mass. It could be argued that Carluccio’s and Yo! Sushi fall into the same category. Blending hard, corporate disciplines with creative enthusiasm and entrepreneurial energy is easier said than done, but when a company gets the recipe right it can be richly successful. Having the idea alone is not enough. It is interesting then that fledgling operations such as Leon and Square Pie have already turned to industry insiders to provide extra insight and advice as they get their businesses off the ground. The eating-out sector needs both corporate muscle and know-how as well as entrepreneurial inspiration to thrive. Partnerships and deals that can leverage both aspects would seem to be what the market could do with more of. Mitchells & Butlers’ arrangement with pub entrepreneurs Paul Salisbury and Paul Hales to develop jointly the Project ‘S’ chain of pub restaurants is rightly held up as a model of creative co-operation. It will be interesting to see how Brinker, the big US corporate that owns the Chili’s casual dining brand, proceeds with its plan to take a fresh approach to gaining a major foothold in the UK market. Bill Simon, Brinker’s senior VP for Global Developments, told conference delegates that he was there to talk to operators and learn. But as John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby, the founders of Leon, which has just opened its second site in London, admitted, it is all very well being one of the most talked about concepts in the capital and having the likes of La Tasca’s James Horler and Wagamama’s Ian Neill on board as investors, there is still no substitute for getting your head down and working hard. Peter Martin chaired the conference and co-presented the Hot Concepts session with Ian Daly.