In the past decade or so, there've been more launches of affordable casual dining restaurants than you can shake a job application at. Walk through any high street, shopping mall or leisure complex and you'll see all the familiar names - Carluccio's, PizzaExpress, Café Rouge, Yo! Sushi…
If you're career-hungry, these buzzy, contemporary concepts offer well-structured training and progression programmes that can fast-track you into management. That's because they're usually owned by companies that pack a punch, such as the Restaurant Group or Whitbread, that are constantly rolling out new restaurants or launching new concepts.
As Chris Raaff, recruiter at the ever-growing Wagamama chain, points out: "This represents the opportunity for young people to join the sector at a time when the opportunities for progression are there."
But not only are these big business chains growing, they are also evolving - as demonstrated by PizzaExpress in the case study below. Inevitably, then, the role of restaurant manager is evolving, too. Emma Kelleher, managing director at recruitment firm Caterek, explains: "Restaurant managers are telling us their roles are becoming more revenue-focused, with many being given sales targets for their teams as well as ensuring quality standards and controlling staffing budgets, whereas previously their roles were more customer focused - skills like meeting and greeting."
To get the inside track on progression in the mid-spend restaurant sector, read on…
Who? Olly Kenny, 23
What? Restaurant manager
Tell us a bit about your training and education I left college at 17 to become a waiter at PizzaExpress. I'd grown up eating at PizzaExpress and my older brother worked for the company. I trusted them and it felt like the right move.
Give us a quick run-through of your career path I started as a waiter, chef and duty manager. I was focused on expanding my knowledge and moved on to assistant manager. I held that role at the Royal Festival Hall, the Strand and Haymarket, all buzzing restaurants in the heart of the West End, where I quickly learnt the art of serving lots of people quickly. My first manager position was in Wandsworth where I spent 18 months building relationships with the local community and making sure our customer service was first rate. It's been my biggest success story to date.
And now you have an even bigger challenge? Yes, I've recently taken on the New Generation PizzaExpress in Richmond. We brought pizza to the UK back in 1965 and we've always been a pioneering business. We're now creating the PizzaExpress of the future, redefining the restaurant experience for the 21st century, focusing on design, acoustics, service and food. We're going to saturate it with new ideas. The ones that work will create components that form a new generation of signatures for PizzaExpress - like the open-kitchen, spotlight, marble table and single flower did for us when we started.
What responsibilities will you hold? I'll be leading a new team in a brand-new restaurant and trying new ways of doing things. We're throwing out the rule book to recreate how we recruit, train and engage our teams.
Tell us about the restaurant We'll have 185 seats at Richmond and, for the first time, we'll open at 8.45am. Inspired by the stalls of Naples, there will be a kiosk opening out on to the street serving breakfast and baked goods fresh from the pizza oven that can be grabbed on the move throughout the day.
What's different about working in a mid-spend restaurant? The wow factor of fine dining is the formality but on the high street, the wow factor is guests being able to relax and have a conversation.
â- There are more than 300 outlets nationwide, with recent openings in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Westfield shopping centre, London.
Who? Star Groves, 27
What? General restaurant manager
Was hospitality your earliest ambition? No. I started out wanting to become a teacher. I even took a degree in educational studies at York University, but at the end of it I decided I wanted to see something of the world. I applied for a cabin crew role at Virgin Atlantic and they said I needed some customer service experience - so I joined Wagamama.
And the rest, as they say, is history? Pretty much. My first job was as a team member and I moved up to team leader, assistant manager and then general manager within three years.
Impressive. Did the company train you? Yes, they're hot on training. I did courses at our HQ, but I also learnt from the general managers I worked for.
What skills do you need for your job? Mainly man-management and an ability to train, so you need to be approachable. At Wagamama the culture is to let people come to their own decisions. I am a positive person and my staff know that I'm here, but I try to give them all ownership so they can work towards running their own restaurant.
Tell us about the restaurant I've got 32 staff, the restaurant has 204 seats and we serve between 2,800-3,800 covers a week. It's fast paced and exciting. Every day is different as we attract varied guests. We have to provide great customer care, good food and a clean environment.
What are your responsibilities? My duties cover operations front and back of house. I am responsible for training staff, making sure budgets and operational standards are met, staff discipline, and maintaining procedures such as food quality, health and safety, and so on.
What are the hours like? It's a different market to London so we have a relaxed afternoon and tailor-make our service to suit that. Managers work 48 hours a week and team leaders about 40. They are reasonable hours for the industry.
â- Modelled on Japanese ramen bars, Wagamama serves freshly cooked noodle and rice dishes.
â- There are more than 65 sites across the UK, with new openings imminent in Camberley and Aberdeen.
Who? Laura McGonegal, 24
What? General manager
Where? Belsize Park, London
You seem to have worked your way up the career ladder Yes, I came over from Australia when I was 18 and started as a waitress at Giraffe's Chiswick restaurant. When I joined I told them I wanted to get into management and they said they would develop me.
And they lived up to their word? Absolutely. I was promoted to supervisor after nine months and six months later I became assistant manager at the Hampstead branch. I began to do two or three shifts a week as a supervisor when business was quiet. I learnt about cashing up, ordering, how to work out the GP and so on. The company also sent me on food hygiene, health and safety and first aid courses.
What challenges did you face when you first became manager? When I took over Belsize Park 18 months ago it was both a new opening and my first managerial role, so there were lots of challenges. I had to revamp the staff and make sure I had a team that was passionate about hospitality. I guess a high point was the fact that we improved GPs and turnover and beat the budgets. I was supported by the operations manager who helped with disciplinary procedures or maintenance, but he wanted me to do my own thing.
Tell us about your job We are crazy about good customer service so my job is to motivate the staff both front and back of house. The restaurant has 120 seats, serves 1,500 covers a week and I have 27 staff.
Why do you enjoy working at Giraffe? It felt like a good company and it is - they move me on when I am starting to feel comfortable and present me with new challenges. They encourage you to think of it as your business and to do what it takes to make that business successful.
Worst bit of the job? It's hard to create a strong team that you can trust - to train them how you think. And there are the long hours. If you want success as a manager you have to be prepared to put them in. I work 50 hours a week and do six eight-hour shifts. If I do a double shift from 7.30-11.30 I can take another day off.
Best bit? I like being with people. I've made friends with the regulars and have watched their kids grow up. It's really nice. I couldn't work in an office. I need to talk to people and move around.
What's your ambition? I'd like to go back to Oz and open my own restaurant. Something like this with family dining. I couldn't work in a formal restaurant because you don't get the interaction with the customers. This is the perfect style for my personality.
â- Serves a varied menu from breakfast to burgers to vegetable burritos.
â- There are 38 restaurants across the South-east and Manchester.
Who? Susie Lygoe-Goldstein, 27
What? General manager
Where? Brunswick Centre, London
You've come at hospitality from an odd angle? Yes, I read history and politics at university, which isn't at all relevant. When I graduated I decided to go into events rather than an office. After a stint doing work experience I decided to go into catering. I liked Carluccio's, liked the deli and thought it was a quirky company.
Did your degree help at all? Well, I went straight in as an assistant manager as the position was advertised for graduates. I'd worked in pubs at university and been a team supervisor so I had experience of managing a team.
But they gave you relevant training? Yes, they gave me four months' training, working in all departments, shadowing the manager and working the floor with a weekly review. It was hard work, but a year later I was promoted to general manager. There are loads of chances for all staff to progress. I've trained seven people to be key holders - it's the first step to management.
What gets you out of bed in the morning? I love the fact you get to know people you would never otherwise meet. Not a day goes past where I don't have a laugh with fellow workers and customers.
Does working in a casual dining restaurant mean service standards are relaxed, too? No. Carluccio's has strict service standards and believes the best way to manage staff is to train them. That way they work hard for you and want to succeed.
What's your next move? The next step for me is to run a bigger restaurant or go into operations.
â- Carluccio's Caffès and delis serve authentic Italian dishes.
â- There are more than 50 sites in the UK.
The recruitment process
Chris Raaff, Wagamama Terminal 5 recruiter, Heathrow, explains his method:
â- We look for people who have a naturally high attention to detail, so our customers experience the same level of service and standard of food in all our restaurants
â- We have a culture of encouraging input and suggestions from all employees and we want staff to engage with our customers in an individual, refreshing way
â- We identify candidates who have an adaptable approach to work, as in this industry you have to expect the unexpected - if a customer needs anything, "why not" is our natural answer to their reques