Staying ahead of your competitor - having the competitive edge - can make or break a business in any sector, but in hospitality competition is particularly acute, with many people's livelihoods resting on whether a restaurant, say, will survive its infancy.
Get it wrong, and not only are reputations tarnished, but the results can be financially disastrous.
Yet, what defines that competitive edge and, as an operator, how do you recognise it and act on it? After all, although many restaurants, pubs and other food outlets get it wrong, many do get it right, too.
Common wisdom suggests that it's a combination of a number of factors, location being one. But then how do you account for all the establishments set in rural locations that are renowned for their quality?
Food is another factor, but service also plays a pivotal role - why would customers want to eat in a place where the cooking is all the rage but the service comes from surly and arrogant waiters and managers?
Value for money is important, too, but the food and the ambience has to be right in the first place. In the case of ambiance, if the overall atmosphere doesn't appeal - garish or cheesy decor, bad acoustics, unfriendly staff, tables too close for comfort - repeat custom will be non-existent.
As John D Rockefeller, reputedly the richest man in history, put it: "The secret of success is to do the common things uncommonly well."
Ultimately, it is all of these factors - the right product at the right price in the right location being the main ones - which combine to give an operation the competitive edge and contribute to its success. One only has to look at London outlets such as the Anchor & Hope or Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, which have succeeded on sites previously thought to be doomed, while the likes of the Michelin-starred L'Enclume, in Cartmel, Cumbria, have become destination restaurants, perched in one of those rural middle-of-nowhere locations.
"You always have to strive for a higher standard in your business than your competitors," says chef-patron Tom Kerridge of the Michelin-starred Hand and Flowers pub in Marlow, Buckinghamshire. "That will be the key. When I was looking to open the business, I found the location first. I then spent a few days just checking out the potential competitors for their food and other elements such as price and service. You have to take the attitude that, with the right environment, staff and budget, you can do better than anyone else in your area, as well as believe that you can achieve better results."
Manoj Vasaikar, chef-patron of Indian Zing, which restaurant critic Fay Maschler has defined as one of the top five Indian restaurants in London, and Indian Zest, which he has just launched in Sunbury, Surrey, concurs.
"I have almost a dozen restaurants, Indian or otherwise, within minutes of my establishment, on the same street," he notes. "Yet I had confidence that my cooking would be of quality and would stray from formulaic curries, offering a marriage of traditional Indian food with a western sensibility. I also wanted my desserts to be upscale and distinctive my wines notable I would use fresh and even organic produce and my staff would be friendly and the decor crisp, clean and sophisticated.
Word of mouth
"After that it was word of mouth and positive reviews - and it has all worked out very well, despite people saying to me that it was a location that would never work."
Similarly, Simon Rogan, chef-patron of L'Enclume, has defied all predictions of failure due to his restaurant's location.
"I took two huge risks to have that competitive edge," he states. "First was that we opened in a remote countryside spot, and the second was to offer cutting-edge cooking. We needed to have that unique selling point. Thankfully, the gamble paid off. I stuck to my guns and the restaurant is now one of the top destination restaurants in the UK."
Some operators believe that gaining the competitive edge can't always be explained in rational terms such as location, quality of food, service and so on.
Will Beckett, who with business partner Huw Gott owns several well-established London outlets, including the Marquess Tavern and Hawksmoor, along with running the Underdog bar and restaurant consultancy, says: "Equally important is the emotional side and how customers feel when they are inside a restaurant.
"Ambience taps into that and I think is a huge part of what makes one operation more successful than the competition. Staff, music, lighting, design, prestige and reputation can all affect how people feel, and the best restaurants understand that, from owners down to junior staff.
"An operator needs to get a feel for what people want and enjoy. But he must not assume that people are going to be so into his concept that the basics of good food, service and consistency are overlooked. All successful operations are really strong at getting the simple things right."
Once the basics are right, marketing and PR can enhance a competitive edge.
Caroline Davy of consultancy JRPR says: "In ensuring the restaurant's target market know about it, raising the establishment's profile generally and setting it apart from its competition, marketing and PR become very important. But it's only part of the mix. There is no point in PR bringing in diners if the food, service and ambience aren't up to scratch. And poor word of mouth is hard to stop.
Get the edge
Define your business and ask yourself whether you have a unique selling point, what it is and how you can exploit it.
Assess your competitors regularly and look at how they run their business, particularly their food and drink offer, their price levels, type of customers, quality of service and overall ambience. Take advantage of their weaknesses and learn from their mistakes and strengths. Don't underestimate your competitor or get complacent.
Identify your customer base. Get to know whether they are locals or have travelled a long distance get an idea of their age, whether male or female and their spending power. Ideally, you should talk to them and, in a casual and friendly manner, ask what it is they like about your establishment. Customer feedback is all-important and can be a good indicator of where your business is lacking, what you are good at, and whether there is something new that you should be offering.
Too many operators forget or ignore the impact of marketing and PR. Getting the word out on your establishment - especially if you are confident that you are offering something different and better than your competitor - is crucial, as it will raise the profile of your business and set you apart from the rest of the crowd.
Keep up with changes and be savvy, flexible and innovative. Remember, there will always be a new operator coming up, so don't get stale or left behind.