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Collaboration And Community Spirit Are Restaurants’ Vital Ingredients

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Our Monthly Long Read

It's been so interesting to see how neighbourhoods feel so different from one another. Soho is a virtual ghost town. Whilst my local park Primrose Hill has been alive with socially-distanced activity.

I rode over to Broadway Market and Victoria Park recently. The contrast between residential and commercial neighbourhoods becoming even clearer.

With a gradual move away from lockdown on the horizon, it's been interesting to think about how the way we use our cities is likely to change. And whether we're looking at a temporary or permanent shift. Personally, I think the former.

It's impossible to contemplate a return to normal life until we have a vaccine. But one thing seems almost certain. Operators cannot base their model on bums-on-seats alone. Retail, delivery and e-commerce will prove to be crucial success factors in the long term. Much as they've been lifelines over previous weeks.

Moving from admirable quick fixes to longer-term strategies and broader, diversified product offerings. Thinking carefully about how to connect clientele with the products they want. And how businesses can come together to do this collaboratively.

Is this the moment for neighbourhood and community-centric operators to thrive? The death of the over-leveraged multiples? Only time will tell. But as people across the world spend more time at home and less time commuting into commercial hubs, the way our businesses operate needs to change. Meeting the needs of both our hard won fans and new advocates currently waiting in the wings.

Connecting purpose with changing customer needs

It's never been more important to heed the much-lauded Sinekism of "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it". In other words, brands need to stand for something.

Leading with a genuine purpose is as important now as it's ever been. But it's essential that this is connected with carefully-considered customer needs.

I always refer to my favourite brand purpose from our old clients and friends, Rosa's Thai Cafés. "The purpose of Rosa's is to create an inspiring environment that makes people happy". Caps doffed, Without Studio for your genius.

This needs to work inside and out. Being inspired and happy are such fundamentals for a great dining or drinking experience. But it rings true for how staff should feel, too. A guiding principle that everyone connects with.

But It's crucial to consider how purpose must evolve in line with customer needs. And these needs are likely to continue to evolve over the coming weeks and months. But there are some fundamentals.

Safety, hygiene and traceability are no longer givens. Staff and guests alike will expect reassurances to be built into brands' DNA, operations and marketing. It's essential that these become part of a brand's purpose. Not merely initiatives deployed in response to the current situation.

Reviewing and updating your brand purpose in such uncertain times will go a long way to instilling a renewed sense of direction. Executed collaboratively with teams and then built into the marketing messages going out to your clients.

Building a strategy around things that will stay the same

In an uncertain world, there are always things that never change. Whilst we've all had to change our behaviour and the way we approach our every day, many of our beliefs and values have remained constant.

Convenience, on-demand, customisation, authenticity and a desire to shop and support local have become fundamentals of our industry. These behaviours aren't going anyway. If anything, the evolution of customer behaviour in these regards have accelerated of late.

We've become more conscious of the food we eat. We want healthy without compromise. And we want to push the boat out and indulge from time to time, too.

We care about where our food comes from. We care about value. We want to align with brands that match our lifestyle aspirations. And we want to tell the world about it on Instagram.

When we double down on what we can be sure of. Combining this with a renewed purpose, focused on the changing needs of our customers. We can begin to create a plan.

Check the competition then focus on you

As part of a branding process we're doing through ourselves (more to follow on that), we've been doing a lot of work on our positioning. It was interesting to drill down on who we're playing against. Whilst this was a great source of aspiration on many fronts, it was also a great leveller as to where we are today. And to a degree, it was quite daunting when we realised just how many brilliant people are our there. Essentially, doing what we do.

I'm sure I speak for many when I say that it's sometimes paralysing. How are we going to cut through? How are we going to stand out? How are we going to capture and maintain market share? There are those with better portfolios, sexier clients and bigger marketing budgets?

And the lesson from this? Understand your market. Understand your audience. Know your competition well. And then look inward, focus on you and crack on!

Because right now, there's so much going on out there it would overwhelm anyone. Don't obsess over the problems, challenges, unknowns and over other people's woes. Work out who you are, why folks love you and do more of that. Talk more about that.

Expand on your core proposition with complementary products and services that are on-brand. And those that add real value for your customers. Balance being nimble and imaginative with ensuring quality remains on a par with the things you've been doing each day.

Strength in collaboration

There's often a great sense of camaraderie in hospitality. Fiercely competitive on the one hand. Passionately community-minded on the other. I think this dichotomy is why I love it so much.

When times are hard people come together. And it's this continued spirit of collaboration that may just get us through the challenging months ahead of us.

We've got to think about where people are going to need to be. Where they're going to want to be. And find a way of bringing them what they want then and there.

And I don't just mean a reliance on Deliveroo and Uber Eats. Because we all know their margins and fees aren't sustainable for restaurants. And that they offer a poor experience for their customers whenever things don't go well. Which let's face it, is more often than they'd have you believe.

If the industry at large is going to have any chance of survival, we need to think differently. Businesses need to understand what slice of the pie they need to be able to stay afloat. And then ensure they help others to do the same. Sharing the love amongst like-minded peers who complement, rather than compete against them.

Could pubs open up their kitchens to others for click and collect takeaways? Could coffee shops broaden their retail range of local products? Could restaurants partner with suppliers to create ready-to-heat meals?

We've seen the green shoots of this already. Now is the time to work out how we move from incidental purchases to key, long term revenue drivers. And then coming up with ways of working together to share the burden and costs of logistics. Making finding, buying and collecting the things we want to buy convenient and easy.

I'd love a world where my local pub reopens as a click and collect point for my favourite local retail businesses. I'd stop in for a pint in the garden (once allowed, of course) and bring some beer home with me too.

Learn from the namaste and don't forget the magic

In these strange times of social distancing and contactless everything, we need to find new ways of showing the warmth, love and generosity that we're known for as an industry.

The Hindu namaste greeting is symbolic both as a spiritual gesture and as a greeting. There are many meanings attributed to its use. But my favourite by far is the assertion "the best in me sees the best in you". It's a lovely sentiment that, when accompanied by sincere eye contact, exudes exactly the kind of spirit that hospitality holds at its core. And what's more, there's no touching.

We live in a mad world. We can achieve so much by focusing on each other's positives. By finding strength in people coming together and doing so gently and with respect.

Last of all. And potentially most importantly. We mustn't take our eyes off the magic of drinking and dining out. And what happens when we come together over a great meal at home. The escapism. The experience. And the joy and respite that we bring to people's lives.

In whatever shape or form our businesses take, we must remember that above all, we're here to create experiences that make lives better. And this is more important now than it's ever been.

So in summary...

  1. Refresh and update your purpose, born from a deep understanding of your customers' needs
  2. Equip yourself with the knowledge of things we can be certain about
  3. Work out partnerships and collaborations that will be mutually beneficial
  4. Do more of what you do best. Expand into other revenue streams and develop complementary products
  5. Know where your customers are and make it as easy as possible for them to get their hands on what they want, where and when they want it
  6. Bring the magic to everything you do