The competition in the restaurant sector is fiercer than ever. My first restaurant, Smollensky's Balloon, opened in 1986. In my niche, I had the field in Mayfair virtually to myself for over five years. In the past six years, however, more than 7,000 restaurant seats have been created within a five- to eight-minute walk of that restaurant.
Those people who tell you competition is good for business are whistling in the dark. It's about as good for business as a food critic or health inspector sighting a mouse or cockroach in your restaurant. True, competition is good for the consumer, but good for business? I don't think so. The exception is when restaurant density achieves critical mass, as in Soho or Covent Garden. Then the area itself becomes a magnet and everyone benefits.
To be honest, we would all love to have a pitch entirely to ourselves. So, in what sense is competition good for us? Only in the sense that it may help grow the market generally by raising awareness of eating out as a pastime. But as awareness is raised, so is the likelihood that more restaurants will open.
One of the reasons I came to Britain in the first place 27 years ago was because I liked the fact that Britain was not quite the dog-eat-dog society that America is. It seemed a place where you could still take time to smell the roses. It still is, but getting less so by the day. I remember being shocked to realise how slow people were to copy a good idea over here. For five years I worked with Bob Payton, the man who brought Deep Dish Chicago Pizza to this country. It was not until four years after the huge initial success of the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory that the first British imitator appeared on the scene.
Boy, it's sure different now. I foresee the competition getting so tough in the restaurant business that we may soon become like New York City, where restaurants have to make their money in one or two years because fashions and trends move so fast there is no assurance that a "hot" restaurant of the moment is going to be around more than that before the in-crowd moves on.
On every restaurateur's lips is the question: "When will it all end?", followed by a quick knock on wood. Are there enough customers in London to go around, and if so for how much longer? With the advent of every new restaurant more people get interested in eating out. The adage that "the appetite grows with the eating" is never more true than when applied to growth in restaurant culture, but there are already signs that the market may be heading for saturation.
Like it or not, competition is here to stay and likely to get more intense. This puts more pressure on operators to find ways of getting more revenue from their existing customers. Those that succeed will stay ahead of the game, and to succeed they must understand that they are not really in the restaurant business as much as they are in the retail business. As retailers they need a trained sales force to make more money from existing customers.
Restaurateurs that continue to think of their servers as walking talking vending machines are going to fall behind their competitors. Serve all you want, but if you're not selling, you're out of business. Training is of course the key to getting better bottom-line results and more sales. Yet many operators fear the idea of training, particularly given the industry's high level of staff turnover. So, what if you train your people to be sales people and they leave? Well, that's bad, but there's a scenario that's even worse. What if you don't train them and they stay? Think about it? If you are one of those who thinks that training is expensive, try ignorance.
In the final analysis training your sales force (oops, servers) may be the most significant way that you will be able to stay ahead of the fierce competition that's supposed to be so good for us.