After a trying 2018, the leading operators and suppliers in casual dining will come together at the Casual Dining Show to discuss the best ways to innovate and succeed. Will Hawkes finds out what's on the schedule
Everything is bigger about this year's Casual Dining Show: the venue, the number of exhibitors and speakers, and the product innovations on show. Taking place at Excel in London on 27-28 February, this year's show is the most ambitious in the event's history. No wonder event organiser Eva Ellis has been busy.
Excel has been chosen for more than its size, she says. "The Business Design Centre [the event's previous home in Islington] was a brilliant venue, but obviously as we have expanded and grown we did need the extra space to develop," Ellis says. "We're not making Casual Dining 2019 a massively bigger show - but Excel gives us a level playing field: we don't have the different levels like there were at the Business Design Centre, it's all on one floor.
"It's also given us room to have a second keynote theatre, which is one of the most exciting things this year. We'll have double the amount of speakers, and moving to Excel has given us that opportunity."
It's an interesting time for casual dining. According to CGA's Coffer Peach Business Tracker, managed restaurants enjoyed 1.7% growth up to the end of 2018, mainly driven by new openings, while medium-sized casual dining operators (those running between 26 and 99 sites) are still experiencing success, having seen the largest year-on-year outlet growth: 18.9%. Client directors Fiona Speakman and Chris Jeffrey will be speaking at the event on Thursday, discussing "How do operators keep winning in a complex market?"
Other speakers include chief executives, founders and senior directors from Dishoom (Shamil Thakrar), Carluccio's (Mark Jones), Hawksmoor (Will Beckett), Mowgli Street Food (Nisha Katona) and Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group (Jon Knight), while there are some intriguing new exhibitors, including Scotland Food & Drink (which is hosting a new pavilion), Diageo, Honest Drinks by Coca-Cola European Partners, Hellman's, Deloitte and Epson UK.
There are two key trends at this year's event, according to Ellis: vegan food and low- and no-alcohol drinks. Quorn, which has been at the show for the last two years, has quadrupled the size of its stand for 2019, while brands like LoveSeitan, Moving Mountains and Rude Health will also be represented.
"Veganism is on the rise - that's been reflected in the inquiries we've had as well," she says. "There's been quite a few plant-based meat and dairy alternatives joining the show this year, and that's quite exciting to see.
"It's also interesting because meat suppliers have realised that needs to step up as well, so it's going to be interesting to see all those companies showing why what they do is best, and why it should be an option for restaurants and pubs."
Low- and no-alcohol options have been one of the hot topics over the past few months, with Dry January bigger than ever this year. No-alcohol versions of traditional alcoholic drinks are relatively well-known now, but it's another option - kombucha - that could make the biggest splash at the show.
Kombucha is a fermented, very slightly alcoholic, lightly carbonated tea drink that has become popular around the world (its roots are in Manchuria and northern China). With its tart, refreshing flavour, it looks to have what it takes to succeed in a market that is increasingly open to sourness.
"It's great to have got some kombucha companies booking in for the first time," says Ellis. "We've got Real Kombucha and LA Breweries. It's a great alternative to alcohol, but it also stands as a delicious drink on its own merits."
Real Kombucha is already stocked in more than 40 Michelin-starred restaurants, including the Fat Duck, L'Enclume, the Clove Club, the Hand & Flowers and the Pig hotels.
"We came at it from an area of sophistication, really focusing on the flavour perspective, realising that it could be an exquisite replacement for wines, ciders or real ales - delicious, complex, ferments with absolutely â¨no need for secondary flavouring," says Real Kombucha founder David Begg.
Last year's Casual Dining Show came at a difficult time for some of the sector's most well-known names. Jamie's Italian hit the headlines, with branches closing and Jamie Oliver pumping £13m of his own money into the business to keep it afloat.
That was the background when Jon Knight, chief executive of the Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group, took to the stage last year. He spoke candidly about the problems that the group had endured, and he's back this year to explain what's happened in the 12 months since - a keynote speech that should be one of the highlights of the event.
"It'll be really interesting to hear about their last 12 months," says Ellis. "I think when there are these testing times in a sector, the Casual Dining Show is more important than ever: it's the only show dedicated exclusively to the casual dining sector and it brings everyone together. At times like this, innovation is all the more relevant; restaurants, hotels and pubs and bars need to do everything they can to draw people in, and obviously food does â¨that and new drink offerings do that."
There are plenty of other great speakers on the bill. Ellis is particularly looking forward to hearing Shamil Thakrar, co-founder of Dishoom, and Will Beckett of Hawskmoor. The latter will be discussing Hawksmoor, his other business ventures, the sector as a whole, and his views on what makes a business successful when he speaks on the first day.
"I think that people who really know who they are and why they stand out, but who also run their businesses with rigour, will have every chance of success," Beckett told the Casual Dining Show blog.
There's something for every level of the sector. One of the most impressive small chains to emerge in recent years has been the Mowgli Street Food Restaurants, and chief executive and founder Nisha Katona will be interviewed on the Wednesday. Founded in Oxford four years ago, Mowgli now has six sites around the UK, with four more set to open in the next year.
"I love the question and answer format as it gets straight to the point and is an opportunity for on-the-hoof honesty," says Katona.
"I may not do myself any favours, but as a new entrepreneur, I think it's important to share my tale, warts and all!"
Who else is exhibiting?
In 2013, the Casual Dining Show boasted somewhere between 80 and 100 exhibitors; that's grown to 220 in 2019. "We've more than doubled in terms of visitors and exhibitors, and the quality we get for the show is just incredible," says Ellis.
"Obviously, I'm biased, but when I hear exhibitors tell me about their journey through the show, how they started off small and then met all these contacts, and have grown and developed as the show has grown and developed, that's really great to hear."
There are plenty of exciting innovations to look out for this year, from limited-edition beers to eco-packaging. Brands including McCain Foodservice, Lamb Weston Meijer, JJ Foodservice, Panasonic UK, Hellmann's, Lutosa, Quorn Foodservice, Raynors, Fentimans, Big Drop Brewing, Freedom Brewery, Dalston's, Menu Guru, Craftis and Ascentia FSE will be showcasing their latest innovations.
One of the more intriguing launches is a new sustainably sourced, 100% natural ketchup from Rubies in the Rubble. The condiment, made from surplus pears and tomatoes, contains triple the fruit of leading brands with up to half the refined sugar.
Panasonic UK will be previewing its new range of commercial rice cookers, which hold hot rice safely for up to four hours, simplifying the cooking process and minimising food waste.
AAK Foodservice will be showcasing its Lion sauces, and inviting visitors to "Destination Unknown" to help shape future sauce development. Rachel Neale, senior marketing manager for Lion sauces, explains: "Versatility is key for casual dining operators, who are constantly under pressure to respond to fast-moving trends spanning a multitude of global cuisine.
"At Lion, we understand this, which is why we invest time and effort in being one step ahead of trends and work in close collaboration with our customers to develop products they need. 'Destination Unknown' will be the perfect chance to gain valuable insight."
Visitors to the show are certain to walk away with plenty of new ideas to consider. "I just want them to go away inspired, having met existing suppliers, done business with new suppliers, and seen what's new," says Ellis.
"I just want them to take something out from the show that's going to really help them grow and develop their businesses, and obviously help the suppliers grow theirs. I want them to remember Casual Dining as being the show for the sector and for being unmissable."
Brands at the show
Mowgli Street Foodswww.mowglistreetfood.com
Rubies in the Rubblewww.rubiesintherubble.com