The Caterer's recent Foodservice Forum hosted fascinating talks from Burger & Lobster founder George Bukhov, front-of-house star Daniele Quattromini, trend forecaster Charles Banks and industry legend Philip Newman-Hall. Katey Pigden talks through the day's highlights
George Bukhov, the co-founder and director of Burger & Lobster, kicked off The Caterer's first Foodservice Forum of 2016 with an apology: "I apologise that such a stupid concept and stupid name made it to this forum," he told delegates at Kings Place, London.
But considering just how popular the brand has become since it first opened in the UK in 2011, Bukhov has nothing to be sorry for.
The idea behind the restaurant started out as a joke among friends over a few drinks, but five years down the line, both the concept and the name have proven hugely successful. Burger & Lobster - it says it all. It's a restaurant that doesn't require a menu and leaves people pondering "Why didn't I think of that?" Some have even gone so far as to try and copy it, with imitations popping up in China.
Starting life as a sort of spin-off to steakhouse restaurant group Goodman (Bukhov has been close friends with founders Ilya Demichev and Misha Zelman since they were at school together in Russia), Burger & Lobster has undeniably developed its own identity within the restaurant industry.
- In 2007 Bukhov was asked to become a partner in the business. "We opened Goodman in London in 2008 - the worst time ever to open a restaurant. Our first customer is now a regular despite him saying it would never work.
"He told us he would give us one month and then we would close. We asked if he wanted to try the steak - he tried it and liked it and said 'OK, maybe two months'. He then tried the wine and said 'three months at the most'."
Bukhov recalls a review from AA Gill about Goodman; he explained that if you want a good steak, you have to go to an American steakhouse in London, owned by Russians. The trio had access to quality beef. "We love burgers but you don't see burgers in a steak restaurant," Bukhov said. "So we joked about opening a burger restaurant and then we started talking about a separate surf and turf idea and lobster specifically.
"We discussed the idea of putting burger and lobster together. Nine out of 10 people said we were crazy and it was a ridiculous idea."
The simplicity of the brand allows for Bukhov and his team to focus on the product and the people. "We don't have a menu to give customers; it's all based on interaction. Food is something which hasn't really changed in thousands of years. People don't think about that. Restaurants used to offer one or two dishes depending on where they were based."
He said: "It's not right to have so many things on a menu. People don't need that much choice, they need confidence the food will be great."
"If you focus on one or two products it will make your life so much easier and the customers will welcome it," he advised.
Burger & Lobster continues to go from strength to strength, importing around 18 tonnes of live lobster into Europe each week. There is even a dedicated 35-tonne capacity lobster tank storage facility near Heathrow. Bukhov confirmed three new Burger & Lobster sites will be opening in London. A deal has been signed for a restaurant at the W London hotel in Leicester Square as well at sites in West India Quay and Holborn. He said the firm would predominantly focus on the US and China over the next couple of years, and that the business would have to consider increasing prices for the first time since the chain opened in the UK.
Cardiff is the worst-performing restaurant for the chain across its UK portfolio, which also includes nine sites in London and restaurants in Manchester and Bath. International outposts include Sweden, Kuwait, Dubai and the US. He said: "Cardiff doesn't seem quite ready for this concept. They have local lobster in Cardiff Bay, but people don't seem interested in it even though it's right there."
He told delegates he thinks 2017 will be the peak year for the brand as delayed projects come to fruition.
Charles Banks, co-founder of global food trends and ideas agency the Food People, presented the company's Food Watch 2016 report to delegates. He discussed the evolving tastes of consumers and the cuisines which are expected to be the most influential in the coming years.
The Food People has been spotting and reporting on trends for more than a decade with a team of around 25.
Stand-out trends for 2016 included the use of open kitchens and the rise of casual restaurants. Open kitchens are now playing an important role in creating an emotional experience for the new generation.
"It's about bringing the back of house to the front," said Banks. "Around 79% of new notable openings in the UK and US during 2015 had some type of open kitchen; from the full Charles Banks 'no barriers', to letterbox windows."
According to the findings from the Food People, around 90% of restaurant openings in London last year were classed as casual or fast casual.
Banks said: "The casual-dining sector is ruling the market at the moment and we are seeing lots of high-profile, Michelin-starred chefs opening casual restaurants."
The likes of Deliveroo and Uber Eats (currently operating in the US) are expected to be big disruptors during 2016 and 2017. Technology- driven delivery is connecting producers and customers - but the use of an intermediary raises questions as to who then owns the relationship with the customer.
Banks also said specialist restaurants are on the rise and the gourmet burger phenomenon shows no signs of abating any time soon - so good news for Burger & Lobster.
Daniele Quattromini, manager of the Lusso operated Club Lounge 39 in One Canada Square and the 2015 Gold Service Scholarship winner, discussed his past year as the scholar and explained why the industry needs to support such awards.
He said: "It's been a fantastic year and I can't stop smiling about it. The Gold Service Scholarship showcases the future of our industry and is all about nurturing talent and giving people the opportunities to succeed." The 2015 Acorn Award winner told delegates that people in business can often be patronising about waiters, but he takes pride in the fact he has shaken hands with the Queen because of his role in service.
"There isn't enough shouting about this side of hospitality," he said. "We have to make the industry more attractive to young people. Television shows make it attractive to be a chef, but I would like to see more focus on front of house.
"Winning the Gold Service Scholarship was the proudest moment of my career. Industry role models are happy to find time for me. It's important for the industry to remember knowledge transfer can work both ways as young people can bring in new insights."
The art of leadership
The forum's agenda concluded with a talk from 2015 Hotel Catey Outstanding Contribution Award winner Philip Newman-Hall about the art of leadership.
It's difficult to imagine Newman-Hall - a man held in such high esteem by his industry peers - as the "rather unpleasant teenager" he described himself as.
"Forty-five years ago I walked into the Wish Tower hotel in Eastbourne and asked for a job as a waiter," he said.
"My four O-levels have done me really well in life. I've always been proud of that fact until I found out that Robin Hutson has just three." Newman-Hall talked of the unsung heroes of the hospitality world - the ones who help others in their career every day.
His big break came with Virgin Hotels, but he decided that running eight hotels wasn't for him, so he took a year out and went to China.
"My wife arranged the interview for me at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire. I didn't think I wanted the job, but got it anyway after an unusual interview process. It opened my eyes to so many things. I had the pleasure of running Le Manoir for one third of its life. It's a part of me and always will be."
He explained that as soon as you put the word manager in someone's title you automatically make them a leader.
"But we don't actually teach them how to be a leader," he said. "My philosophy in life is that the team is so, so important. It's all about the team, I wouldn't be where I am today without the teams behind me."
Newman-Hall shared his motto that behaviour begets behaviour. "Be honest and respect your team, as the standards you set are the standards you get."
He went on to reference a quote from New York restaurateur Danny Meyer. "All staff want to succeed," he said. "We all work better if we are under 'constant gentle pressure'."
But he said the industry needs to get better at acknowledging when people do well.
"We're not very good at saying 'well done' to people but we are good at saying when something goes wrong. We need to catch people doing things well. Small things make a difference; it's not all about money. Leadership is knowing things about your team."
He concluded: "We need to be shouting from the rooftops about this wonderful industry. We don't do that enough."
Hospitality Action's Employee Assistance Programme
Camilla Woods and Laura Clyne from industry charity Hospitality Action told delegates about the charity's Employee Assistance Programme (EAP): a specialist, independent and confidential advice, support and assistance service available 24 hours a day.
EAP officially launched in January 2014 following extensive research into how the charity could help more people within the industry. The service can be accessed via the charity's website or free helpline and offers guidance on just about everything life can throw at people.
Hospitality Action has produced more than 150 factsheets on subjects such as money and debt, health and wellbeing, addiction and personal support.
People have used the service because they have been victims of domestic violence; experienced the unexpected death of a colleague; been in proximity to an explosion at work; or coped with an armed robbery.
The EAP also recently helped support the team at the Westerham Costa after a car crashed into the store on Christmas Eve and killed customer Valerie Deakin, 74. Whitbread wanted to provide group and individual support to the team who were on duty that day.
Clyne, services director at Hospitality Action, said: "Long hours and a demanding work schedule continue to be a very real problem that afflicts the hospitality industry and puts great stress on its employees.
"When you add to this personal pressures such as depression, addiction, stress, illness or financial worries, then these can easily escalate and have a major impact on people's lives."
Face-to-face counselling among eligible employees rose by a third in 2015 compared to the previous year.
Bullying and harassment at work was the number one reason why people consulted the EAP factsheets throughout 2015. That was followed by dealing with redundancy, low mood and depression, money pressures and alcohol support.
Have I Got Foodservice For You
In a Foodservice Forum first, delegates were entertained with a hospitality comedy quiz based on BBC TV's Have I Got News For You.
James Horler, chief executive of 3Sixty Restaurants, grilled an all-star panel on the industry's top stories and news. Mike Sunley, chief executive of Lexington Catering, and Rob Kirby, chef-director of Lexington Catering, competed against Emma Williams, director of operations for Green & Fortune, and John Nugent, Green & Fortune's chief executive.
The teams battled through typical panel show sections including current affairs, missing words and the odd-one-out rounds. Contestants were quizzed on recent hospitality stories, such as a restaurant in France named the Fat Duck being handed a legal warning from Heston Blumenthal and the fact James Martin was banned from making an omelette in public as part of his BBC contract.
In her introduction to the new format, The Caterer's editor Amanda Afiya said the idea for the Foodservice Forum does Have I Got News For You could be "a stroke of genius or an absolute disaster". We'll let the audience be the judge of that.
â- The next Foodservice Forum will take place on 16 September at Kings Place, London
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