Inside Track by Peter Martin
The news that Strada, the Italian restaurant chain, wants to expand into Scotland and Ireland is yet another sign that casual dining brands are on a roll. Evidence suggests that casual dining restaurants are now rivaling pubs as the first choice for eating-out. It is certainly true in London where the casual dining market is both buoyant and competitive. But, what about the rest of Britain? There still remains a suspicion that many London-based chains remain cautious, perhaps too cautious, about moving north and west at any pace. There may be justification. The London and South East market still offers plenty of opportunity for growth, so many prefer to exploit that before looking elsewhere. And it is not that many years ago that a number of concepts had their fingers burnt moving away from their London home ground too early. Times have changed, and national expansion is now back on the cards, as the Strada announcement underlines. But should growing brands be doing more to make the most of a still largely unexploited market away from the capital? Much has been written about the North/South divide in Britain - including its effect on the eating out market. Southerners certainly spend more on eating out than their northern counterparts. But that does not mean that people are not going out to eat outside of the capital - they are. Eating-out of home at least once every three months is the norm across the country, with significant numbers going out at least once every month. The undoubted success of the likes of Pizza Express, Frankie & Benny's and Nandos outside of the South East corner of England suggests that casual dining operators should be moving faster to develop their concepts right across the country. These three brands all gained higher satisfaction ratings right across the UK as a whole in a recent Peach Factory poll than any of the major pub restaurant chains, and Frankie & Benny's, which has specifically developed its business away from London, is now one of the favourite choices for adults in the North West of England, for example. The survey showed that a fifth of adults in the North West had eaten at a Frankie & Benny's in the past year, significantly more than had been to a Beefeater and almost as many as had been to a Brewers Fayre. Consumers outside of London are also becoming more demanding. More people in the North and Midlands than in London think pubs and restaurants should be doing more to improve the eating-out experience. It all points to a major opportunity for mid-market brands to exploit. Moving out of London sooner rather than later may be a risk worth taking - if there's a risk at all.