Providing a unique experience and point of differentiation is crucial for smaller operators going into the coming months, said leading chefs and restaurateurs at MCA’s Restaurant Conference in September.

Drawing from the UK’s Top 100 Restaurants lists by Restaurant Magazine, the innovation panel session spoke to four chefs and restauranteurs about standing out from the crowd in a dynamic and competitive environment.

Panellists included Amy Corbin, co-founder of South African concept Kudu Collective; Will Murray, head chef at ‘conscious gastronomy’ concept Fallow; Sertaç Dirik, head chef and co-owner at Turkish restaurant Mangal 2; and Imogen Davis, co-founder at sustainable cooking concept Native.

Corbin spoke about championing South African braise-style cooking, which has paved the way for the four-strong Kudu group of restaurants to become neighbourhood favourites.

“It set us apart from competition in the area,” she said. “Peckham is a fantastic melting pot of cultures, so it was well accepted. I think people in London are willing to try new things, and that gave us confidence to continue growth in that direction.”

Speaking on running a successful group of sites within close proximity of each other, Corbin discussed launching Smokey Kudu – a cocktail bar a stone’s throw from the original restaurant – to provide a place for Kudu customers to drink following dinner.

“I felt like if we made it good enough, people would come.”

Murray described the ‘conscious gastronomy’ idea behind Fallow and building a brand identity for a business launched right before the pandemic.

“Looking back, the pandemic is what shaped us into who we are,” he said. “We changed our concept completely to make it something more similar to our background, and came out a lot better.”

“We always said we wanted to try and be the busiest restaurant in London. It feels really good to have some sort of identity but know we’ve got so much more ground to cover as well.”

The intention behind the Fallow concept is to innovate by marrying fine dining with sustainability and low waste.

As for Mangal, Dirik has similarly revamped the menu and concept since taking over as head chef a few years ago. The Turkish restaurant was first launched by his father in the 1990s.

“In 1994, Dad’s style was groundbreaking…looking at Dalston now, there were 15 other Turkish restaurants within 150m of this one,” he explained. “Every other restaurant had the same menu.”

Like Murray, Dirik spoke on developing a sense of identity and provide a unique proposition.

“Turkish food is not just rice and meat on platters. The culture is more than that and that’s what we aim to achieve.”

Davis discussed how she differentiates her British heritage cooking concept, pointing out the difference between sustainability and greenwashing.

“Sustainability is now thrown around all over the place,” she said. “In its true form, it has always been at the core of what we’ve done.”

Native focuses on providing an immersive dining experience to customers, with unique offerings such as squirrel on the menu.

“You’re not coming to us because you’re hungry, you’re coming to us for an experience.”

The four restaurateurs further discussed current cost pressures and their impact on smaller operators.

Dirik reported that menus at Mangal 2 are reassessed every month to keep food costs in check, while the restaurant avoids certain cooking techniques such as deep frying to use less oil.

He also recommended using surplus supply to lower costs, while Murray spoke about looking at alternative forms of protein and reducing food waste.