Consumers increasingly want to grab a quick bite rather than indulge in a leisurely lunch, but with the high-street chains already catering so well to this market, can the independents compete? Elly Earls reports
Business lunches are no longer four-course, three-hour affairs complete with an expensive bottle of Pinot Noir. They are more likely to take place over a pizza, or even a round of sandwiches, and be tied up within the hour. Moreover, cash-strapped consumers are increasingly looking for cheap grab'n'go options at lunchtime, wanting to avoid the feeling that they've been out for a meal at all.
High-street chains, such as Côte, Carluccio's and Café Rouge, have responded to this with offers galore, from set menus for under a tenner to money-off vouchers incentivising return visits and express lunches designed not to run over the allotted lunch hour. Consumers have leapt on these well-marketed, value-for-money deals.
However, as a result, independent restaurants have lost out and are increasingly struggling to bring in lunchtime trade.
"In our 10 years' trading, we've always found lunch trade difficult," says Andre Millodot, owner of the Wet Fish Café, a restaurant/brasserie in London's West Hampstead. "We've seen the recession bite on our high street."
"The number of people taking meals out, especially during lunch, has diminished across the board," agrees Sasha Svatek, bar manager at the Rosso Restaurant & Bar in Manchester.
However, with a bit of creativity and a lot of hard work it's still possible to fill restaurants.
"We've actually seen an increase in our lunchtime trade, but that has taken a lot of hard work and strategic investment in such a tough climate," Svatek confirms. At Millodot's operation, too, after a lot of experimentation with different lunch formulas, the restaurant is now generating a brisk lunchtime trade.
So, what's the secret? For Emma Read, director of marketing and business development at Horizons, a company that specialises in data and insight for the foodservice sector, there are three key things independents need to address if they're to compete with their group-owned counterparts: convenience, price, and giving the customer what they want.
"Speed is really important at lunchtime," she emphasises. "The businesses that are doing really well are those that are quick and convenient and have really fast turnaround times."
That's not to say that the long lunch has died out, but it isn't bringing in the most trade. "The long lunch will become more niche," Millodot says. "Even high-end Michelin eateries increasingly have ‘express' offerings."
Price, too, is high on customers' priority lists. "Independents need to make sure they are price-competitive compared to who's next to them on the high street," says Read. But, perhaps even more important than this, they must offer true value for money.
"'Value' can be in the service, the portion sizes, the quality and style of food or the location. The secret is to include extra offerings for the price-conscious, no matter who your core market is."
Quick pub menu It's also crucial to give customers what they want. "You mustn't let your own desires for the restaurant run away with you," stresses Paul Merrett, chef-owner at pub and restaurant the Victoria in East Sheen, south-west London, which offers a quick pub menu, including items such as sandwiches and Scotch eggs priced at less than £10 for people who want to feel like they've "fuelled up" rather than indulged in a meal out.
"I think the most important thing about lunch, particularly for working people, is to be able to assure them they can get to you, order, eat, pay, get out, and get back to the office all within about an hour," he says.
According to Read, there's no reason that independent restaurants cannot reflect these consumer trends right away. Using technology is one means of doing this. "Think about using things like [smartphone] apps, so customers can order in advance and pick their meal up," she advises. "There's no reason an independent chain can't do that any better than a group-owned chain. Anything that can speed up turnaround time is fantastic."
But while speed is of the essence, it's not everything; today's health-conscious consumers are also looking for quality, sustainability and, increasingly, locally sourced food. And this is one area where independent restaurants can gain the edge on their competitors.
"Independents can source much more locally, and if they can push the credentials of where they've sourced their food from, that will make them stand out," Read notes.
"We all talk about health and sustainability, but the brands that are really having success, like London-based Pod, and Tossed, do it well and they market it really strongly."
Clearly, marketing is key in this equation and, again, it's an area where independent operators can outshine the high-street chains.
"The same tools are available that the big groups use, such as social media, but the edge an independent has got is that they can home in on their local area much more effectively, targeting their marketing materials to the area they're operating in and picking up things that resonate with their local community," Read explains.
For operators located off the beaten track, such as the Victoria, which is eight to 10 minutes away from the nearest shop, local marketing is particularly important. "We need to pop up in people's minds, and the only way we're going to do that is by continually reminding them nicely that we're there," Merrett says.
Local marketing Merrett and his team, therefore, use mail drops, hand out branded beer mats with offers at the local station, work hard to feature in the local press and even get involved in local events such as school fÁªtes, where they can hand out vouchers.
Money-off vouchers, of course, are one of the key techniques high-street chains use to bring in and maintain trade and, according to Read, these can work just as well for independents - as long as they're clever about it. "Rather than just giving money away, make sure what you're offering incentivises people to keep coming back," she suggests. "For example, if you come in five times, you get a discount on the sixth time."
Finally, independent restaurants should emphasise the personal touch, like Millodot and his team at the Wet Fish Cafe. "The difference between us and the chains is that our boards look and feel 'tailored' daily [hand-chalked, created according to what's in stock, and so on] instead of being soulless, mass-produced and anonymously printed on A-boards," Millodot says. "We're trying to do what independents can do, which is to enhance our offering with caring service and food made with TLC and flair."
Launching a high-value set lunch
Eighteen months ago at the Rosso Restaurant & Bar in Manchester the management decided to introduce a high-value set lunch menu to lure in the lunchtime trade, and they haven't looked back. "It's been incredibly successful," says bar manager Sasha Svatek. "Not everyone dines from the lunch menu, but it's proved very popular, which means we often have a full restaurant midweek."
The set menu costs £12.95 for two courses and there are five choices of seasonal starters and mains. Customers can also add a bottle of wine for just £5.95.
"We haven't changed the quality; we've simply provided an accessible high-value set menu that is seasonal, changes regularly and includes more choice than most set menus," Svatek says.
"We've achieved this through careful menu planning from the head chef, really good supplier relationships and keeping things high-quality but simple. In this
climate, this is very popular."
Of course, the new menu wouldn't have enjoyed the success it so far has without a good marketing strategy, something Svatek is well aware of. "We're fortunate to have a very large and loyal following at Rosso," he says.
"We have 5,000 people on our mailing list and we communicate to this audience regularly, especially about lunch. We also utilise our 40,000 Twitter followers, regularly updating them on the new menus and so on."
Rosso's PR agency also ensures that the lunch menu is pushed out to local media and the restaurant also hosts regular "Captain's Table" lunches, where it invites influential individuals from across the city to try the lunch menu. "Of course, word of mouth is our best advertising method," Svatek says
Be appealing without looking desperate
Over the 10 years the Wet Fish Cafe has been trading, owner Andre Millodot and his team have always found lunch trade difficult, as West Hampstead is a mostly residential area, oversupplied with shops and restaurants. But a recently introduced offer - the Epic £6 Lunch Deal, which includes a simple brunch-style dish and a hot drink - has turned things round.
"We introduced it a year ago and our lunchtime trade has increased by about 20%, rather than falling, as with many other businesses on the street," Millodot says. "It has a following, and people even phone in or tweet us to ask what dish is on today. It's helped us become busier, which in turn attracts others. People bring friends who go Á la carte and spend an average of £10-£15 per person."
The Wet Fish Cafe also offers a daytime brunch and lunch menu, which is easygoing and reasonably priced, with a dish and a drink costing on average £10-£12.
For Millodot, the reason the Epic lunch deal has been so successful is because of the value for money it offers. "It surprises people," he remarks. "So they enter - and leave - feeling it was a great-value deal." The deal can be upped to £7 to include any other drink, even wine.
"Getting the tone of the offer is crucial," Millodot adds. "Our challenge was to offer a seemingly 'crazy' deal, yet maintain people's perception of us as a high-quality eaterie. We wanted it to be fun, appealing and a pleasant surprise - rather than desperate."
Make a virtue out of being different
At the French Table in Surbiton, Surrey, lunchtime trade has never been better, and there isn't a special offer, voucher or express deal in sight."We're attracting the people who are avoiding the offers," says proprietor Sarah Guignard, who hasn't changed the set-up of her lunch menu since opening 12 years ago. The offer is a set menu, which costs £19.50 for two courses or£23.50 for three and includes dishes such as caramelised pork belly and assiette of lamb.
"I know there are people out there who want lunch for £9, and that's fine. But that's not our market. Our customers come here to enjoy the experience. It's more like a treat," she explains.
"We are charging more but, obviously, we've got all the lovely things that go with it. What stands the test of time is offering good food with lovely customer service."
For Guignard, the long lunch isn't dead yet."People still want a nice place to go for business lunches and special occasions; I believe there is still that market," she says. "We still get people coming and having a nice leisurely lunch."
So what's the secret of the French Table's success? For Guignard, it's all about consistency.
"I think it's the fact that we're just there; that's the price we offer; this is the standard you're going to get," she says. "There are so many offers out there, it can get exhausting."
She also believes it's essential to know your market. "As a restaurant, you've got to find where your correct pitch is," she explains.
"If you're going to compete against the big boys, you've got to go out there and do it hard like them; but if you're not, you've got to market yourself by saying, 'Listen, if you don't want that, come to us'."