Taking a proposition from ‘meh’ to ‘yeah’

During the reign of casual dining brands, reliability, know-what-you’re-getting and crowd-pleasing cuisine kept the average consumer happy. Branded Italian concepts were as ubiquitous as they were successful. Being ‘okay’ was genuinely good enough; Pragma worked with F&B clients achieving mostly seven or eight out of 10 as an advocacy score, and performing perfectly fine.

At the same time, consumer choices were being driven by voucher codes, coupons, and the sector was engaging in a midweek discounting arms race for custom. We all know that discounting does not deliver true loyalty – it attracts and creates a fickle price sensitive customer, which goes some way to explaining the lack of sustainability of this approach.

More recently, the tides have turned. We have seen a host of established, yet undifferentiated concepts closing sites. It’s no secret that F&B is the latest hard-hit sector. A multitude of factors are rumoured to be contributing to the woes of contracting chains – low consumer confidence, uncertainty, Brexit, business rates, market saturation and previous indiscriminate rollout or estate over expansion.

Yes, these external factors play a role, but there are pockets of turbo-charged performance too. Look no further than Pret a Manger’s last set of record results. Leon broke the £50m mark in their last results too. Operators need to take a step back and look at how customers are engaging and experiencing their proposition. The challenge is to focus upon what is controllable, so, what changes operators can implement to improve their performance in these more difficult times.

The art of hospitality

Key to success is to recapture the somewhat lost art of hospitality – officially defined as ‘the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests’. Many operators would do well to re-engage with this concept and recall that running a restaurant is about how you make the guest feel, rather than simply providing transactional sustenance.

Guests that are treated as walking wallets don’t come back. Providing a restaurant visit which leaves customers feeling passive about the brand no longer cuts the mustard. The true value proposition is about how guests feel. In the age of the experience economy, our collective mindset is more motivated by enjoyment than ever before and our mental accounting reflects this. As a nation, we are prepared to pay for time well spent.  

Bill’s CEO says it is important to make customer’s experiences memorable. “It’s not good enough to deliver what they expect, you have to go beyond that. Service that’s personal, a product that has features beyond the basics, a follow up after their purchase that recognises you appreciate them”. Bill’s ran a Father’s Day offer to give every Dad that dined there a free beer. They did not tell them we were going to do that when they booked, didn’t advertise it, just did it. “The Dads were delighted and remember what we did, that should bring many of them back again”.


At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the sheer volume of foodie Instagram posts and the undeniable appetite for ‘food porn’. Customers want talking points and ‘Instagramable images – an experience leaving them raring to share and to tell their family and friends.

At the top end of the market, photogenic eateries, with lush and eye-catching interiors have it made… We like Bob Bob Ricard – English Russian classic fusion where you can dine in Orient Express rail car inspired booths, fully equipped with a ‘press for champagne’ button!

At a more accessible level, casual dining chains are cashing in on the fact that it has become the norm to take a snap of your meal before you tuck in and are adding twists to make things more interesting. Dirty Bones fused Mac and cheese with a burger to create a high calorie talking point! And with a focus on quirky presentation, touches like Zizzi’s Spiedini – a Mediterranean hanging kebab, and The Botanist (New World Trading Company) serving starters and desserts in a trowel!

In for the long run

But, as with most things, the true skill comes in striking a balance. Although a successful proposition should be continually evolving and creating talking points, to achieve sustainability, there needs to be a consistent theme and something that is familiar to the consumer – the reason that they love the brand. There are continually new and different ideas popping up around London and that’s great, but many only last a few months before the next big thing comes along. A sustainable concept must remain engaging, and true to its core. Make sure it’s consistent and you listen to staff and customers feedback. And keep training your team to deliver it.

Differentiation is the through-line

For operators this means keeping your eye on the ball at the same time as nurturing the brand –  focusing on delivering a relevant, differentiated proposition – in everything from menu, to environment, to service. This is what will drive repeat visits, advocacy and, in turn, overall sales performance. Provenance and authenticity, alongside a strong narrative sell. Creating a genuine welcome and sense of specialness means avoiding formulaic service.

As an interesting contrast, the grab and go space has slightly different rules of engagement, where convenience and reliability trump the choice drivers. A visit to Pret would not be described as an emotional, memorable experience – the joy there comes from finding what you want quickly and being served by smiling, efficient member of staff. In this case, a pleasant, slick transaction is the name of the game!

The future of loyalty in casual dining is not about voucher codes and point schemes, but about making people feel valued and hosted, giving people a reason to talk about it, recommend and come back again and again. How to do this? Make sure your customers feel that you are giving something back. Make them feel as though they are part of a community. Not in the form of free food or points, but a more enduring experience. Innovate, look at new products or exclusive invitations to supper clubs, ways that make customers feel connected, part of your brand and valued.

By Helene Mills, director of business management consultant firm, Pragma

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