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Chain, Chain, Chain...

Chain, Chain, Chain…..

I am not sure if you remember the great song written by Don Covey and first performed by Aretha Franklin, the actual title is ‘Chain of Fools’. This past month or so has seen a multitude of articles and comment of the failure of Jamie’s Italian, Prezzo and Byron among others.

As I walked down Upper Saint Martin’s lane the other evening at 515pm, I saw the line outside Dishoom and marvelled at their popularity. I could have said the same for Caravan, Breakfast Club and Padella, all of which regularly have lines outside them.

It isn’t just that the examples above are differentiated between corporate or independent. Jamie’s wasn’t backed by private equity nor is Dishoom. Also, if that were a reason for failure then surely McDonalds and KFC would be in trouble, not to mention Nando’s and Greggs.

As I chatted to Ed recently about a small group looking to get to 5 sites and to then find a buyer, I considered our last trip to New York and a recent announcement from Corbin & King about their next two openings. Laura and I were discussing why independent New York restaurateur led companies like Union Square Hospitality Group (Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Café), Major Food Group (Carbone, The Grill) or Happy Cooking Group (Jeffrey’s, Fedora) don't rollout their successful hits? Manhattan is a big borough and can accommodate multiple sites of the same brand. These restaurateurs however, create a concept, work on it and once successful, they go on to create something different. The goal is not to sell out. It seems the goal is to develop legacy.

In UK once you have a success, questions follow along the lines of ‘how we can roll it out and then exit’. I have sat at board room tables and argued for this in the past. I have also done the opposite. I recently had this conversation with a client and discussed working the NYC model rather than the UK one. Be different, keep the audience interested, you can still build brand loyalty through differentiation. Terence Conran was the leader for a long time at this and D&D continue to this day, creating different restaurants, as do Corbin & King.

I don’t know how many offers they have had to roll out the Wolseley both in UK and internationally, but they have resisted. Instead taking the longer view and appealing to their natures, which is not to cookie-cut something and expand but to create unique stories and new concepts. However, and there is nearly always a however (or a but), they are opening a Wolseley Café in Bicester Village, although I feel this will be the only repeat they do. Watch this space.

Those of us from the independent restaurant world can be a little ‘sniffy’ about chains, I used to be, but that was before I spent a year within one. I learned about this sector of the market and about how to create something that feels unique to those that work there and comforting and special to those dining there. There is a real skill here and Steven Walker from Individual Restaurant Group is a master of it. His Piccolino brand stands the test of time and he has focussed on constantly updating the look, feel and offer, the 30-some restaurants across the country are all profitable and have a loyal following. He has crossed the Rubicon by making a chain feel local.

In the end, it is down to what do you want? Do you want to try and sell your business and make millions? If so go for it. Beware though, that road is paved with failure; then again so is the one taken by independents who want to gradually build a brand that excites and offers differentiation.

Whatever you create, it must have soul and a true belief in what it is because without it, you won’t attract the great people you need to work it or frequent it. In the end this is a people business not a money one.


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