We look back to MCA’s Restaurant Conference to summarise some of the key messages around the power of original concepts and a people-led culture, including insight from Wagamama founder, Alan Yau, the company’s chief executive David Campbell, Deliveroo’s Will Shu and others.

Delegates at this year’s MCA Restaurant Conference were treated to the latest insight surrounding property, investment and technology; and were warned that when it comes to developing a concept and a people-led culture, it’s a case of continuous improvement

Kaizen, the Japanese practice of continuous improvement, was the word that passed through a number of the presentations at MCA’s annual Restaurant Conference, which took place in September at the Grand Connaught Rooms in London’s Covent Garden.

More than 250 delegates were treated to insight from leading sector players, including Will Beckett, co-founder of Hawksmoor; Marcel Khan, director of operations at Five Guys; David Campbell, chief executive of Wagamama; and innovator and restaurateur Alan Yau.

Yau, the founder of brands such as Wagamama, Busaba Eathai and Hakkasan, gave an insight into how he strives for continuous improvement and struggles to attain his goal of a perfect concept. He told delegates: “At the start of any project, you have a perfect vision of how that concept will work but you are continually struggling to keep that vision intact, without some kind of compromise. I am still striving for that perfection. In that respect it is about continual improvement, whether that is Kaizen or through what the cycling team at Sky calls marginal gains. You have to keep focusing on that.”

David Capmbell, chief executive of Wagamana, said that Kaizen was the inspiration behind the brand’s renewal project – “standing still is going backwards”.

Development potential

Speaking via video from the group’s  new US flagship site in New York, Campbell told delegates that he sees the potential for more than 100 of the brand’s restaurants in the country.

Campbell told delegates that he expected to double the currently three-strong estate by next year. He said the group had secured a second lease in New York, in the East Village, and was close to securing a fourth site in Boston.

He said: “We’ve been in the US for about nine years now and we’ve learnt a lot. We had four sites in Boston but we closed one down in the suburbs. We are now focused on urban areas of Boston and New York. We’ll be up to six sites in the US at least by next year and the plan is to be at 50 in five years. Longer term, we certainly see the potential to be north of 100 restaurants here. We’re really excited by the new sites in New York and Boston and what we can do in other areas of the US.”

Campbell conceded the company’s double-digit like-for-like growth could not continue indefinitely, but expects Wagamama to continue to outpace the competition – something it has done for 123 weeks in a row according to the Coffer Peach Tracker.

He also said the group had a good working relationship with Deliveroo but stressed “delivery needs to be an addition to what we do, not a substitute”.

Deliveroo founder Will Shu spoke of his desire to empower the next generation of chef-entrepreneurs with his Roobox concept.

Shu said the Roobox initiative, which is planned to grow to 20 sites by the end of the year, allowed innovative operators to launch without the overhead costs of a physical site.

He told operators how delivery-only kitchens could save up to 40% by removing the front of house – and suggested that this saving could be translate into a lower price-point, and open up restaurant food delivery to a much wider demographic.

He said: “We’ve seen affluent areas with no restaurants and bars, where operators aren’t going to spend £400,000 setting up. With Roobox, they can work with us for no cost, that’s what we think is very interesting.

“What we’re passionate about is incubating a new generation of chef-entrepreneurs.”

On the potential cost benefits, he said: “If you remove the front of house and remove rent costs. I think that’s up to 40% of your revenues. Your margins change dramatically.

“The question is, do you want to sell something cheaper but at the same quality?

“If you can think of a price point that is more accessible, you can open up this service to a much wider demographic.”

Shu also discussed Deliveroo’s Roobites, its express lunch service, and its business service, which can be fully integrated into company’s internal financial systems.

Brand promiscuity

Five Guys UK operation director Marcel Khan celebrated the “brand promiscuity” of Millennials and welcomed choice in the better burger market.

Khan appeared in the week Five Guys opened its 50th UK restaurant in less than three years – the equivalent of opening a site every 21 days.

Joking that the aggressive rollout had been “very tiring”, he put the US-founded concept’s success in the UK down to the quality of the product – and admitted it was always looking for ways to inspire staff.

He said: “This idea about Millennials and brand promiscuity… having lots of different burgers to try is an amazing thing. Burger monogamy is not a good thing. Burger promiscuity is.”

Explaining Five Guys’ approach to people, Khan said: “I don’t think we’re people-led, I think we’re a product-led company. You need amazing teams to deliver a great products and you need to believe in the product. You end up with a greater people culture when you have something to believe in.”

He continued: “I do worry we don’t do enough for our people. I would love to be able to say we’re perfect, but we’re not and I think questioning things is the source of our strength.” Khan said Five Guys had tried to demystify and simplify potential career options and had a culture of continuous improvement.

Positively inspiring staff to work hard – which includes hand-making all its food every day, and a two-hour deep clean late into the night – was crucial, he said.

Positive behaviour

“It never ceases to amaze me when you walk into a restaurant and you see bosses walking around being grumpy”, he added. “I don’t know how to inspire and motivate and be a grumpy bastard at the same time. The power of positive behaviour is incredibly important.”

Byron people director Mike Williams addressed the “elephant in the room” and spoke about the better burger brand’s role in the arrest of suspected illegal immigrants.

While not going into specific details about the incident, which saw Byron attract protests after it co-operated with the Home Office in the arrest of 35 of its own un-

documented staff, Williams said Byron’s people culture had helped it move on from the episode. He said: “Our culture has been tested recently, and it’s our culture that has got us through the other end.”

Williams also addressed the growing pains of Byron, which was one of the early innovators in the better burger market, but has since seen an influx of rivals.

“The burger wars are a reality”, he said.

“All these businesses are expanding. It’s not just a war for burgers, it’s a war for talent.

“We quickly realised after years of budget-busting success we had become complacent and the competition was catching up with us.

“We had to find new ways to reclaim our mojo as a business.”

Williams said Byron had overhauled its approach to people in a bid to reconnect with staff, with ‘speed dating’ recruitment days, parties and fun initiatives.

“It might seem that we take every opportunity to celebrate and party, and that’s because we do”, he added.

“In tough times it’s easy to cut the parties and fun bits, but in a modern organisation it is one of the most important things to have happy staff.”

Hawksmoor’s Will Beckett took delegates behind the numbers that have underpinned its success and people-led credentials. He said that the goal remained to be the best employer in the industry. He said: “In terms of the highest engagement scores – 86% of our staff feel proud to work for this organisation; 91% said my organisation encourages charitable activities; and 85% feel this organisation is run on strong values/principles.”

In the concepts-to-watch segment of the day, Josh Magidson founder of Zing Zing said the group planned to dominate the market in London before expanding nationwide in a bid to become the “best Chinese delivery company in the world”.

The group recently secured £1.6m in crowdfunding and has made a number of appointments, including operations director Phil Peters, former operations development manager at Tesco, who will look at streamline the logistics of the delivery service.

Magidson said: “The crowdfunding round has put us in a great position where we can really grow.

“We will start with London and dominate that market, then expand throughout the UK with company-owned and franchised stores.”

Magidson told delegates how the concept started life as a student delivery business, before it was acquired by Just Eat.

A gap in the market

While working at Just Eat he noticed how Chinese food was both the most popular and most complained about in terms of service and quality and saw a gap in the market for a high quality, healthy and modern Chinese takeout company.

“It’s a traditional delivery of Chinese takeaway, but with a modern twist”, he added. “We’re not trying to break people’s habits, but to tap into them.

“The past few years have been about creating a scalable operation and creating the best Chinese takeaway in the world.”

Magidson also told how the company’s technological nature meant it had a huge amount of data about its customers, which had informed the evolution of its products.

Eric Fulwiler from leading digital agency Vayner Media called on operators to recognise the shift in consumer attention and the need to generate “thumb-stopping content”. He said: “Lessons learned decades ago, when ads shifted from radio to TV are just as applicable now as attention shifts from TV to mobile. As always, it starts with the business objective. Identify the number of audience segments that will drive your business.

Build platform strategy and media targeting around these audiences.

“Create mobile video at scale to drive these audiences to conversion. My three key takeaways would be: think attention first, understand your audience and focus on relevancy (shareability).”


Improvement must be constant