Casual-dining brands are some of the most ubiquitous and successful in the hospitality sector. Tom Vaughan asks industry experts about the secrets to the success of five of the most admired, and also takes a look at what happens when good brands fall off the brandwagon
A lot has changed since Antonio Carluccio opened his first Italian food store in Covent Garden in 1991, and the restaurant chain now boasts 55 sites across the UK and a further six internationally.
Its strength, says food service analyst Peter Backman, managing director of Horizons, lies in carving itself a niche in the marketplace, mixing a coffee shop with a delicatessen with a grown-up restaurant offering. It is this restaurant offering that is its main strength, says Robin Rowland, chief executive of Yo! Sushi, who admires Carluccio's for its ability to deliver a sophisticated concept in an informal setting, and for managing to overtly brand the chain without making the sites at all oppressive.
The company has also performed a mini-miracle, says Tampopo co-founder Nick Jeffrey, with its ability to expand without diminishing any of its offerings.
Launched in central London in 1992 by restaurateur Alan Yau with the brief of delivering healthy, noodle-led fast food, Wagamama now operates sites in 19 countries.
Over its 19 years the brand has become shorthand for an eastern style of casual dining, says Backman: "There are so many things going for it - it appeals to lots of different people all across the world, its staff are always friendly, you get looked after, there is lots of choice, and it's stylish."
Wagamama branding has consistently stayed ahead of the curve, says Peter Martin, founder of hospitality industry analysts Peach Factory. "When it started, most people didn't want their dishes turning up at different times, but Wagamama has turned that into a virtue. It delivers time after time again, and continues to say all the right things - it's open kitchen, it's fresh and it's got a great product."
Founded in 1997 by entrepreneur Simon Woodroffe, the first Yo! Sushi had people queuing down the street to get in. Fourteen years on, and while the novelty of conveyor belt sushi has dimmed, Yo! has managed to repeatedly stay on top of the casual-dining market.
How? Ian Neill, CEO of the Individual Restaurant Company, says that Yo!'s constant ability to reinvent itself, combined with a very strong brand image and a commitment to working with the consumer has kept it at the forefront of the market.
Peach Factory's Martin says that the most commendable aspect of Yo! has been its ability to evolve: bringing in new customers with a campaign of quirky advertising while maintained relationships with its existing clientele.
When Nando's launched 24 years ago as a Portuguese-influenced chicken restaurant in Johannesberg, few would have imagined it becoming a global force. But after opening up its first UK store in Ealing 1992, the company now has nearly 250 branches across the country.
In terms of communicating with customers, Nando's is one of the strongest brands around, according to industry analyst Martin, combining stylized interiors with an easily understandable product.
Martin says: "It has managed to become classless, it's a brand with probably the most diverse ethnic mix of any brand in the country and it has a lot of humour in it. It has a great relationship with its clientele and it nurtures it."
Pret A Manger
Founded in 1986, Pret's gradual expansion throughout the country was not just a triumph for founders Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham, but - with the company's dedication to helping both the homeless and the environment - also for a socially and sustainably minded model of hospitality business.
However, it is the attitude of the staff throughout the company's 250-plus sites that draws the most admiration from industry figures.
"They have a very good staff culture," says Tampopo's Jeffrey. "If the staff aren't engaged with the brand, it will fail to deliver. Pret is pre-eminent in its ability to get staff fully on board with what it is trying to deliver."
To have such welcoming teams and positive teams in every outlet is, says Yo! Sushi's Rowland, very rare indeed.
The consistency of sites is also meticulous and an important lesson for brands, agree Jeffrey and Rowland, with everything from the on-site-made sandwiches to the uniforms in line in every outlet.
WHEN GOOD BRANDS HIT HARD TIMES
The first Berni Inn opened its doors in Bristol in 1955, wooing the public with a home-grown restaurant chain complete with mock-Tudor interiors.
While the likes of prawn cocktail and gammon steak with chips impressed the dining public up until the 1980s, by the mid-1990s shifting consumer tastes had left it behind, and in 1997 owners Whitbread converted the remaining restaurants into other outlets.
Horizons' Backman says that Berni's demise was the mother of all branding lapses: "It just didn't keep up with the changes that came along over the decades it was in business. Beefeater has been going almost as long but has managed to reinvent itself to keep afloat. Berni Inns may have opened up the eating-out market for a generation of people but it didn't keep up with the competition. Offering a limited menu of steak and chips isn't enough these days."
A staple of the casual-dining market in the early 1990s, Pizzaland restaurants shared a demographic with Pizza Hut restaurants, which ultimately proved to be its downfall.
"Pizzaland was a classic case in kind when it got dragged into a discounting war with Pizza Hut and, to put it simply, lost," says the Individual Restaurant Company's Neill. "In those cases, it's the bigger man that tends to win."
After struggling to keep up with its bigger rival, Pizzaland's parent group BrightReasons was acquired by Pizza Hut's then-owners Whitbread, and its sites either sold off or converted from Pizza Hut outlets.
Another brand that seemingly lost its way after appearing to have a bright future in the 1990s, casual-dining Cajun-specialist Old Orleans had 27 outlets in 1999.
A giddy roll-out strategy even saw then-owners Scottish & Newcastle announce plans for 60 nationwide outlets come the millennium. Instead, only three outlets now remain.
Although there were 30 outlets as recently as 2006, when Regent Inns bought the chain for £26m, poor trading contributed to the group's slide into administration in 2009.
The lesson, says Rowland, who managed the restaurant group from 1988 to 1992, is that a brand has to be continually moving forward and constantly maintaining and evolving the relationship with its customers, otherwise there will be drastic consequences.
"Quite simply, they forgot what they were about and stopped delivering on a great experience," he explains.
A staple of childhood birthday parties for anyone aged 30 or over, the decline of Wimpy from British institution to marginalised fast-food operator hasn't happened overnight.
In 1970, the brand operated over a thousand restaurants in 23 countries, but now runs around 150 in the UK. The simple reason: Wimpy failed to keep up with the competition, says Backman.
"One of the problems was when they started out they were in one of the areas now occupied by McDonald's - offering American-style burgers," he explains. "When McDonald's came along they fought for many years to maintain their prominence but then started to struggle. Once you go downhill it is very hard to stop that slide."
Another attempt to relaunch the brand started recently with a spate of refurbishments, but with several other casual-dining burger restaurants expanding in recent years, the competition is stiffer than ever.
Despite a mini renaissance of late, Caffè Uno is nowhere near the player it was six years ago, when it was a serious casual-dining competitor to PizzaExpress. Sites total just three at present, compared with 58 in 2005, when Paramount bought the group from TRG.
"They fell to ground from a very strong market position," says Jeffrey. "Italian food will never go out of fashion and it had some brilliant sites. However, it didn't manage to move with customers' understanding of Italian food. Offerings have become more and more authentic as time has gone by and Caffè Uno didn't keep up with that."
However, since Prezzo bought the Caffè Uno trademark in 2010, the brand is in the process of rebirth as an all-day Italian diner.