London’s Changing Restaurant Landscape

12 July, 2019

London’s restaurant landscape is both extensive and diverse and is an ever evolving beast, but recently it seems to be have been changing faster than ever (a trend that is being reflected in other global cities from Melbourne to New York and San Francisco to Paris). This changing restaurant landscape is a down to a complex mixture of contributing factors many of which we’ve covered quite extensively in a number of recent blogs. These include:

The Rise of Food Halls and Markets
The past few years has seen street food go from strength to strength, and now it seems it’s the turn of a new-wave of food halls and markets to shake-up the fast-casual dining sector. With a carefully curated set of operators these eating emporiums offer communal eating with plenty of choice from any number of different global cuisines, providing the sort of experience that can’t usually be found in regular restaurants. With modern diners having a noticeable lack of loyalty as well as being well-travelled and eager to try new global flavours, they are a perfect fit for everyone from the time-poor office worker to the social-media driven millennial generation. With high footfall and low overheads they are also great for traders as they can keep their price points low and so to their overall risk.

The impact of these food halls is only set to increase and further disrupt the sector as more and more open up and as they become an increasingly mainstream and popular way of dining.

Market Halls – Slick, on-trend food hall with sites in Fulham and Victoria and a large new site soon to open near Oxford Circus.

Boxpark – Food and retail collective in old shipping containers with locations in Shoreditch, Croydon and Wembley.

Mercado Metropolitano – This large food and drink hall in Elephant and Castle is due to open three more sites over the coming year.

Kerb Seven Dials Market – a permanent indoor market hall set up by Street Food champions Kerb– it will feature 26 traders and is due to open in mid-2019.

Arcade Food Theatre – a brand new food hall opening in July at Centrepoint in Oxford Street.

Eataly – Originally from Turin, but now found in many global cities, Eataly food halls feature a mix of food and groceries, and it is set to open in Broadgate, London in 2020.

The Market – A large food hub set to open in Bishopsgate in 2020 – a joint venture between London-based catering company rhubarb and the Young British Foodies

Time Out Market – Following the success of Time Out’s Lisbon food market, the magazine has since launched similar markets in Miami, New York and Boston, and will also be opening in one in Waterloo, London in 2021.

Markethalls in Victoria

The Rise of Home Delivery
According to research from MCA Insight, the U.K. restaurant delivery market is booming and is now worth £8.1 billion – a growth of over 13% on 2017 figures, which has been led by the likes of the likes of Deliveroo, Just Eat, Grubhub and UberEats. This sector is continuing to have a major impact on bricks and mortar restaurants, with diners now having access to a vast array of restaurants and cuisines – all without having to leave the comfort of their front rooms. Such has been the demand for home delivery that for many restaurants it has now become an integral and important revenue stream – in fact these days you would be hard pressed to find a restaurant that doesn’t offer a takeaway service through at least one of these operators – from fast food to Michelin starred fine dining.

The Rise of Vegetarianism and Veganism
Over the past few years there has been a decided shift in our eating habits towards vegetable-led dishes and so there’s also been a dramatic rise in the number of people identifying as either vegetarian or vegan, particularly among the so-called Millennial generation. As meat and fish take a lesser role in our diet, plant-based eating is now becoming the new normal. According to a Mintel report (May 2017), the UK meat-free market is estimated to grow from £559m in 2016 to £658m in 2021, while a YouGov report from the same year showed that 25% of British millennials claim to be either vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian. This sea-change in the both the way we eat and what we eat means that many restaurants are having to re-evaluate their offerings and to some extent their business models to ensure they still cater for all customers.

The Decline of the Mid-Market, High-Street Chain
There’s been a change in what people are looking for when eating out – whether it be immersive dining, authenticity or the feel of individuality, diners are increasingly seeking more value for their money and little bit more from a night out. Diners are growing tired of cookie-cutter high-street chains with their standardised, and some would say uninspired, cooking (it’s no surprise that many of these have recently either seen a decline in revenue or gone out of business altogether) and are instead looking for innovation, authenticity and honesty in the food they choose to eat and for more individual and unique experiences.

Nigel Slater sums this in a recent interview in Noble Rot magazine…  ‘just look at what’s opening and what’s closing. That scary mid-market. Partly because a meal in a mid-market restaurant, if you’re not careful, will cost you almost the same as eating in a restaurant that you think is going to be a special occasion. You think, “Oh, we’ll just have a little bite and a glass of wine” – and it comes to 100 quid! Expensive restaurants don’t seem to be much more expensive than they were five years ago. The difference is really quite small between a very ordinary meal and going somewhere that’s really special.’ So with people being ever more mindful of how they spend their money, why would they choose a forgettable experience in a mid-market restaurant or high-street chain when, for not a lot more expenditure, they could have a memorable experience in an excellent restaurant.

Rising Costs and Financial Constraints
Unsurprisingly this changing landscape has led to many restaurants struggling to survive. Add to this the fact that many have also been suffering additional financial strain from issues such as Brexit-related economic uncertainty, upward-spiralling rents and rates, and rising labour and produce costs it’s no wonder that some view the traditional restaurant model as being almost at breaking point.

However, as is always the case in an ever-evolving landscape, it’s not all doom and gloom. It just means that restaurateurs are now having to work harder and be more focused and imaginative in order to provide a point of difference and attract diners and their hard-earned cash (in fact many of the challenges outlined above are a reflection of this change already happening).

So just what is the recipe for success given the current changing restaurant landscape? This is of course very subjective and dependant on many factors, but here’s a few ideas regardless…

A sense of ownership and a generosity of spirit:
Basically the antithesis of the number-cruncher, cookie-cutter, bean-counter mentality that is so easy to spot in so many high-street restaurants. This is something that the Big Mamma Group with its two London restaurants, Gloria and recently opened Circico Popolare, do exceptionally well. There’s a litre bottle of quality olive oil on the table, bread is included and for the wine by the glass, a bottle is brought to table and free poured – not a measure in sight. Finally there might even be a free limoncello at the end of the meal! It’s small but well-thought out extras such as these that have undoubtedly contributed to the appeal of these restaurants and proves there’s nothing like providing a good old-fashioned sense of hospitality as a way of getting diners to return time after time.

The dining room at Circolo Popolare
Image courtesy of via Instagram

Investing in, and supporting staff:
After all staff are essentially the face of the restaurant and having staff who are attentive and professional but also friendly and with a real sense of personality goes a long way in helping a restaurant’s success. For example the restaurateurs Jeremy King and Chris Corbin (the duo behind successful restaurants such as The Wolseley, The Delaunay and Brasserie Zédel) admit that Brexit is having an impact on staffing, but are finding ways around the loss of skilled European employees by inviting back former staff, and encouraging women and the over-50s through more flexible working hours.

Establishing and supporting a quality supply chain:
Having a good working relationship (which includes paying fair prices) with a selection of carefully chosen suppliers or actual producers allows restaurants, be it small independents or a larger multi-site operations, to source quality ingredients and create menus that have a real point of difference. One example of this is the very successful pizza chain Franco Manca, which despite rapid expansion over the past few years, still keeps a close relationship with its key independent suppliers. This provenance is clearly displayed on its menus and is a definite driver in helping the company stand out from its considerable competition and also maintain its loyal customer base.

The Franco Manca menu listing suppliers and provenance

Clever menu planning and clever use of ingredients:
Restaurants can keep costs down while also offering interesting and often extensive menus simply by being creative and using the same ingredients in different ways in a variety of different dishes. By doing this chefs are also able to keep waste to a minimum and ensure a reliable supply chain.

Changing opening hours:
This may include opening earlier or later to maximise trade or even closing on quieter days, which can have the dual benefit of not to overworking staff but at the same time increase footfall on the busier days. Recently there’s been a boom in the number of restaurants offering all-day dining, that is, places that are open from breakfast until late night and as such are able to take advantage of a greater period of footfall.

Breakfast at the ever-popular Dishoom, which is open from early morning until late evening
Image courtesy of @dishoom via Instagram

Catering for a wide range of dietary requirements:
Having a strong vegetarian and vegan offering these days makes good business sense and as such it’s something that even the most meat-focused restaurants are now starting to introduce.

The willingness to be flexible with the business or concept in order to keep it fresh: 
Whether this be as simple as regularly changing the menu or through other methods such as home delivery, running pop-ups and one-off events or introducing chef partnerships and kitchen collaborations.

Although the above pointers are all valid in their own right, there’s obviously no exact recipe for success. However, as the restaurant landscape continues evolve, it’ will be the operators who are prepared to invest for the long-term, that have an eye for detail and are willing and able to adapt and embrace change, that have the greatest chance of survival and future success. As the aforementioned Jeremy King, said in a recent FT interview… ’what’s really interesting in London is the independents. I have never seen so many British people become restaurateurs in their 20s. But you have to stand out. You can be classic, or innovative, but you have to make a difference.’