The restaurateurs topping the Caterer and Hotelkeeper 100 most influential people, in association with Caterer.com, show that success through this period of austerity consists of a value concept combined with creativity and comfort. Emily Manson reports
This year has proved quite a year for the UK's restaurateurs. While it may be boring to keep banging the recession drum, the continuation of the economic doldrums has now begun to define and reshape the sector.
Summing up the economic climate, former restaurateur Nick Scade, now chairman of the Academy of Food & Wine Service, says: "Trading remains incredibly difficult in the market, whether top or casual, but especially in the middle."
This situation is reflected in this year's Caterer and Hotelkeeper 100 list, compiled in association with Caterer.com, according to Jane Sunley, chief executive of Learnpurple. "Restaurants with cool brands, well executed, value for money concepts and shabby chic decor are all proving popular with the cash-strapped though discerning consumer," she says. "These are the ones now doing well."
Sunley also notes that while the big chains continue to battle for market share through offers and super-marketing, the 2012 list shows entrepreneurship is "alive and kicking", despite the austere times and many risk-averse larger companies.
Value for moneyCaterer and Hotelkeeper 100's top five.
Alice Keown, associate director at Davis â¨Coffer Lyons, says: "The whole recession is having a significant impact. McDonald has ensured the product's quality over the past couple of years and its success is very much about hot food and value for money. McDonald has been responsible for rebranding the burger chain from junk food pariah to an acceptable family meal and has managed to maintain that momentum this year."
Spectrum Other familiar faces in this year's top 10 demonstrate the variety within the sector - from Richard Caring (Caprice Holdings) and Harvey Smyth (Gondola Holdings) to Des Gunewardena (D&D London) and Robby Enthoven (Nando's).
Tim Hughes, chef director of Caprice Holdings - whose founder, Richard Caring, came in at number 3 (overall number 11) - notes: "The interesting thing about Caterer and Hotelkeeper's 100 Most Powerful People in Hospitality this year is the vast spectrum - from high street to high end, street food to corporate."
One of this year's highest risers, Russell Norman, co-founder of Polpo adds: "This year's list is particularly eclectic. Contract caterers, hoteliers, chefs, restaurateurs, pub executives and entrepreneurs all being compared and measured against each other seems a little like comparing apples with telephones, but that just goes to show what a vastly varied industry we are part of."
Hughes goes on to note that just 15 years ago, Britain was only just starting to embrace different styles of cuisine. "Now," he says, "London is arguably the restaurant capital of the world. In our restaurants we have chefs who are creative, follow the seasons and use sustainable produce, but tend to answer to customers' demands, while other chefs are hugely pioneering - such as Fergus Henderson and Heston Blumenthal."
"We all have a shared responsibility in this 'restaurant revolution' and have changed the way that food is perceived. There's room for everyone in this marketplace."
Keown also points out that even previously high-end operators are taking advantage of the widening sector and are diversifying into the mid-market sector. "Even operators such as Caring want to protect themselves from having all their eggs in the fine-dining market and so are moving into much more accessible price points," he says.
Discounting In the mid-market, casual-dining sector discounting is fast becoming the acceptable norm. Scade notes: "The casual market is surviving on almost permanent discounting and they seem to have changed their business model to live with that."
But he adds that while the top end of the mid-market is still enjoying significant growth, it's squeezing the vast number of smaller mid-market independent operators who constitute a large proportion of the market, especially outside London.
Scade explains: "These operators can't really compete on the discounting front and trading is incredibly difficult for them. People are going out less and when they do, they want to avoid taking risks and so go to the chains as they are safe bets."
New Entries This desire for safety and comfort has also seen a marked shift in the type of new restaurants being opened - and in the people â¨making debuts into the Top 100. New operators are focusing almost exclusively on single offers or simple foods done well - as is seen by the new entries this year of operators such â¨as Wahaca, Hawksmoor and Goodman - as well as the near-meteoric rise of Norman's Polpo group.
Will Beckett, chef-patron of Hawksmoor says: "It does seem that the list this year shows a few people who are trying to do casual restaurants where the food is of a really high quality instead of focusing on one or the other. There seem to be quite a few new entries, like us, and maybe that tells you something about how eating out in Britain is changing at the moment."
Norman adds: "It is interesting and encouraging to see a significant number of independent operators on the list; an indication of the substantial shift, particularly in the restaurant field, towards small-scale, passion-led businesses."
Keown points out that operators such as Norman have also led the charge with regard to the trend of small plates. "It's effectively recession-proof as a concept," she says. "Customers feel as if they are spending less, even though they may well not be - it's a key recession-driven trend."
She adds that Norman is also responsible for the recent shift in restaurant design to favour stripped-back decor with exposed bricks, bare light bulbs and the rest. "He's taken interesting and challenging spaces that other restaurateurs haven't been able to see the potential of and turned them into an austerity chic venue, which has now become an interior design trend."
Other new entrants to the Top 100 this year, Luke Johnson and Andy Bassadone, are also having a key influence on the marketplace. "Johnson is fascinating in terms of the breadth and scope of his influence and effectively owns all the bakery brands out there and is defining the sector," says Keown, adding that Bassadone, "has redefined casual dining first with Strada, then Côte and now Bill's."
Benefits of responsibility Of course, rising food and energy costs remain a continued pressure for operators and Mark Linehan, managing director of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, notes that now four of this year's top 10 restaurateur entries are members of the SRA.
"Customers are becoming increasingly â¨educated and demanding," he says. "The fact that four of the restaurateurs on the top 10 â¨list are members of the SRA demonstrates â¨that the most powerful people in the industry see the benefits of running their business responsibly and communicating that to their customers."
A View From the Top Jill McDonald