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Good news for restaurants

says Andrew Moore, head of Corporate Restaurants at Christie + Co. In spite of the fact that the economic climate has become noticeably tougher and the final months of 2007 were not a great period for the casual dining market, current trading figures suggest that the restaurant market is coping better than other sectors with the economic uncertainty

Over half of British adults eat at a restaurant at least once every three months, according to a recent Peach Factory report. The percentage rises to 76 per cent in London, where casual dining is now the number one choice when eating out. Looking at some of the major movers and shakers in the out of home market, we see a mixture of caution and optimism reflected in their undertakings.

Erring on the side of caution, Clapham House – the operator of the Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Tootsies chains – issued a profit warning at the end of 2007 and blamed the instability in the financial markets for its decision to soften its expansion plans. Similarly other operators, including The Restaurant Group and Regent Inns, have reported a more challenging marketplace and noted a slowdown in consumer spending, while Tragus Holdings, Wagamama, and Gaucho Grill, have all postponed plans to float.

Conversely, YO! Sushi reported a six per cent increase in like-for-like sales for the year to 25 November 2007, Tragus saw a 4.5 per cent rise in like-for-like sales for the four weeks to 6 January 2008 and the Individual Restaurant Group said its sales in December 2007 were up 13 per cent on the previous year.

The news that the founders of Pret A Manger, Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham, sold most of their controlling stake in February as part of a £345m buyout to Bridgepoint Capital, also highlights the fact that market confidence is recovering. Pret currently has about 200 shops, mostly in the UK, but with some operations in New York, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Looking ahead

Many operators have confirmed that their expansion plans for the coming year remain on track, with Tragus – driven by the expansion of its Café Rouge and Strada brands – expecting to open up to 38 new sites.

There will also undoubtedly be more market consolidation in the coming months. Capricorn Ventures, the owner of Nandos, has built an 11 per cent stake in Clapham House, which many believe is the prelude to a takeover bid that would unite two of the sector’s fastest growing brands.

Ambitious restaurant groups with successful concepts will expand into secondary towns, while branded operators will seek units in new-build mixed-use schemes.

New brands will also appear. Gourmet Hotdog Company – led by Mark Yates, who was previously behind The Real Greek and Livebait concepts – has already opened its first two stores in London and plans to open 10 sites in total over the next 12 months.

International developments

Many UK operators are looking abroad for expansion opportunities, especially in the Middle East.

Clapham House has announced it has signed an international franchise deal to open at least 11 restaurants under its Gourmet Burger Kitchen brand in Turkey over the next four years. Under the agreement, the company will open its first restaurant in a major shopping centre in Istanbul in the second half of its current financial year.

Hamburger Union, the fast-casual burger format founded by Hugh Fowler, will open its first international sites later this year in the Gulf. The group, which recently sold most of its UK estate to Aberdeen Steak House, will open two franchise sites in Kuwait over the next six months.

Caffè Nero – the privately owned coffee bar group founded in 1997 by Gerry Ford – has over 330 stores in the UK, making it the largest independent coffee retailer in the country. The group is now planning to have a presence in China, the Gulf and several European countries.

Vapiano LondonWelcome Vapiano

Vapiano, the European restaurant concept that was launched five years ago in Germany, is set to open its first site in the UK, in London’s West End this June.

Although a German brand, the cuisine is Italian and the style is fast casual. As you enter the restaurant, you are greeted not by a waiter, but rather by a host who will hand you a chip card. With this chip card you order your food personally from the individual pizza, pasta or salad stations and your drink from the bar. With the emphasis firmly on fresh (herbs are home grown and pasta is made on the premises daily), you wait while your meal is deftly prepared in front of you before taking a seat in an environment that is refreshingly uncluttered, yet where style and elegance are paramount.

Coffee shops

Coffee and cookiesThe UK already has more than 3000 branded coffee shops with more in London than there are in Manhattan. Research group Allegra Strategies predicts that the number of coffee shops in the UK will grow to more than 6000 by 2017, rising at nine per cent annually. Staggeringly, Starbucks currently opens a new shop in the UK every fortnight.

The good news for restaurateurs is that the ongoing expansion of companies both nationally and internationally, combined with diversification of the market, well-managed brands and high-quality operators will allow the eating out sector to continue to thrive for the foreseeable future.

Main image courtesy of YO! Sushi

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