People who take food seriously have long scoffed at the word “chain”, a term associated with soulless conveyer belt-esque dining, or even at the thought of a restaurant “concept”; thought to be an overworked, contrived framework that is more devoted to a brand than to its food.
But some of the most successful restaurants of late are redefining restaurant chains and concept restaurants; rolling out their finely tuned passion projects with gusto, and at a rapid pace.
Consider some of London’s most successful restaurants of the last five years. There is Hawksmoor, a steak and cocktail eatery with killer branding and an inspiring rags to riches backstory, Dishoom, a razor-sharp homage to Bombay’s Irani cafes, and Bone Daddies, which bizarrely (and triumphantly, I might add) serves up ramen in a rock ‘n’ roll-themed setting.
But it doesn’t stop there – there’s also Russell Norman and Richard Beatty’s mini Polpo empire, Burger & Lobster, Ottolenghi, Vinoteca, Smokehouse and Hakkasan to add to the ever-growing list.
Brindisa restaurant group is a great example of early adoption. After sixteen years of wholesaling the best Spanish food in the business to leading restaurateurs like Mark Hix, and selling their amazing chorizo sausage rolls at Borough Market, Brindisa opened its first restaurant in 2004, on the corner of the bustling market. It proved to be the perfect location for a deliciously simple concept: rustic and regional Spanish cuisine that’s small in portion and big in flavour.
After winning over customers in Borough, Brindisa quietly built up a small empire. Its portfolio, at the time of writing, is composed of sites in Kensington, Soho, Piccadilly, Shoreditch and, intriguingly, Barcelona. The concept works and Brindisa’s stakeholders now find themselves in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose where to roll out next.
So what is it about Brindisa that has allowed it to thrive? Brindisa is not a market leader because it is a tapas restaurant – London has been home to hundreds of those for decades – but because it has built up a reputation for providing unparalleled Spanish produce, and since its restaurants opened, serving this produce creatively and consistently.
The recently opened Rupert Street site bears all the familiar hallmarks of a Brindisa restaurant: Iberico hams hang from hooks, vats of Extra Virgin line the counters, and the decor distils the rustic charm of the Spanish countryside without feeling at odds with the metropolitan setting.
The menu, too, reads like a billet-doux to Iberian cuisine – Butifarra, morcilla and chorizo pincho, Andalucian crispy fish, gazpachos, manchegos – showcasing regional specialities and steadfast in its refusal to dumb down for a local audience.
Staying relevant in a fast-moving market like ours is a challenge, but this is an area where chain restaurants hold a natural advantage, as new sites not only present the chance to increase profit but also to rejuvenate the winning formula.
So while Brindisa has its flagship in Borough, its other sites are free to zone in on different aspects of Spanish cuisine. Morada Brindisa Asador on Rupert Street, for example, celebrates the Castilian tradition of cooking on coals, with signature dishes of Segovian roast suckling pig and milk-fed lamb cooked in a Josper.
Brindisa’s position in the market also allows it to acknowledge other industry trends; Shoreditch’s Tramontana Brindisa has been known to serve up its own take on the gourmet burger, albeit comprising morcilla and butifarra, naturally, while back at Morada you will find “fish fingers” and a steak tartare burger on the menu.
Not all chain or concept restaurants are created equal – and this polarity is what makes these terms seem like rather dirty words. Expanding is a path that must be tread with passion but also with care – do it right and you might end up with a brand like Brindisa, thriving after 11 years, but do it wrong and your concept may be diluted, resulting in loss of valuable customer trust.
Nevertheless, as London’s appetite for great food and food brands increases, so will the market for this league of independent chain and concept restaurants.