Casual dining industry "reaches maturity"

The casual dining sector has “come into its own”, according to a panel of heavyweight industry experts

Robin Rowland, CEO of Yo! Sushi, joined Simon Kossoff, CEO of Carluccio’s, Ian Neil, chairman of Las Iguanas, and the CEO of Living Ventures, Tim Bacon at a lunchtime session at the Casual Dining conference in London today.

The fact that a conference was being held to focus on the sector was a sign in itself that the market was gaining recognition, said the panel. The inaugural two-day conference has attracted 118 exhibitors and thousands of delegates in the casual dining sector, which is now a  £7bn industry in the UK.

Yo! Sushi won the custom of one in every ten people who ate out in the UK last year, Rowland said. He thinks more sophisticated diners, affordable pricing and “the democratisation of the food sector” have all played a key part in the growth of this mid-tier part of the dining out market.

Neil is something of an industry stalwart, being nicknamed “the godfather of casual dining.” The former CEO and chairman of Wagamama has played a significant role in the growth of other successful dining brands including Pizza Express, Leon and Jamie’s Italian.  He agreed that the sector was maturing, saying, “it’s been particularly successful over the last decade and feeds a desire by consumers for a high quality experience. Growth has been helped by a time-starved society.

“People still want to go out and have a positive dining experience, but they want an ability to choose how long they want to give to that restaurant. Casual dining gives the ability to choose how long they spend doing that.”

Both brands have been targeting international expansion plans. Carluccio’s has bought back several of its international franchises, and Kossoff said today, “if you are well funded and looking at international expansion the best way to protect your brand and the concept is to do it yourself.” Yo! Sushi opened its first US restaurant in 2012, and Rowland said today the brand was going to look to open up to ten more stores in the UK annually and up to three a year in the US.

The key to international expansion is to remember your heritage, the experts said. “You have to be obsessed about food, and your people,” said Rowland. “The brand is easy to communicate once you have it in your DNA. There’s no secret, you have to focus on that one thing only.”

“I like to come to work to have fun,” added Neil. “Our customers should be coming to enjoy themselves. And the staff should be having fun as well. I don’t want any company I’m involved with to be trying to change the characters of our staff. We want them to come to work as great human beings, to engage with the customers and other staff.

“The people who want to achieve great success in their business have to invest heavily in the training of their people.”

Other speakers throughout the day echoed the theme that  quality of staff is central to the success of the business, particularly in the casual dining part of the market where diners have very particular expectations.

Jens Hofma, CEO of Pizza Hut Restaurants, spoke at one of the earlier sessions about the importance of remembering the front line staff.

“Once you become bigger and more corporate it’s fairly easy to lose touch with the front line of your business. All of a sudden you start to believe its not the people slaving away in our restaurants achieving something – it’s me! That’s a very dangerous avenue to go down. Reminding ourselves that people working on minimum salaries at the front line if our business doing a hard job is what we build out business on.”

“We think the casual industry is starting to mature,” he said. “I think there still a long way to go, but it’s starting to be taken a lot more seriously.” In his session, where he told delegates about key tensions in the sector, namely durability and scalability, he admitted that Pizza Hut had made mistakes.

The conference was opened with a keynote speech from Peter Backman from Horizons, who defined the casual dining sector as one where there was a spend of between £10 and £20, with diners typically spending up to 45 minutes in the restaurant.

Backman said his top three growing trends to watch in this sector were Italian, healthy and US-branded restaurants.

Helen Roxburgh


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