With previous industrial revolutions there came a bustling high street, but with the latest digital revolution, it’s more a case of businesses going bust. At first it seemed as though only backwards-looking high street shops would suffer. As we have seen recently however, it’s casual dining restaurants that are faltering more and more.
Below we look into why certain restaurants have failed and are failing as well as why certain restaurants have bucked the trend. We will also give our take on how casual dining restaurants can combat the many challenges they face in the hazardous high street environment.
Since the crash in 2009, we have seen a fair few high street shops go under. A steady trickle of the likes of Austin Reed, Jaeger and BHS. Part mismanagement, part failure to adopt a digital strategy and part reduction in consumer spending seem to explain their departure from town and city centres.
This last year, however, has seen a flurry of, not only big high street shops, like House of Fraser, Marks & Spencer, Homebase, Mothercare and everyone’s favourite, Poundworld, go into administration or have closures, but also casual dining restaurants.
GBK is the latest to announce it is struggling, having suffered an operating loss of £2.24m in the 22 weeks ending 29 July. Other casual dining chains battling to survive include Jamie’s Italian, Prezzo, Byron and Carluccio’s. They have all had to adopt Company Voluntary Arrangements (CVAs) as a means to manage underperforming sites. While London-based operators, such as Barbecoa, Conran & Prescott, Hummus Brothers and, more recently, Gaucho Group have gone into administration. In Wales, the chain Eat closed its Cardiff branch for the last time as well as numerous stores across the country. They have decided instead to focus on London and transport hubs.
Why these casual dining restaurants?
From competitive capitals to down-at-heel small towns, the collapse of the high street seems to be felt everywhere. Even in affluent cities like Bath, which has its people lamenting the many boarded up and empty windows on show. To stop the city from turning into a complete ghost town, Bath residents have even launched a High Street Fightback campaign. But what are they fighting back against?
Mainly it’s the internet…
The convenience of online shopping (for high street shops) and online delivery (for casual dining restaurants) has made traditional retailers and restaurants have to work much harder for their customer to come all the way into town. Why would the average punter bother when they can get lunch delivered to their office or, to their home, after a hard day’s work? And who wants to go out on Sunday evenings when they can stay in and watch the TV, all snuggled up with a delivery?
So really it’s special occasions and Saturday nights out where casual dining restaurants can clean up. But restaurants can’t survive on those times alone. Therefore, there must be other reasons why the likes of Jamie’s Italian and Carluccio’s are crumbling.
The economy stupid…
The main monetary fish slapping everyone in the face at the minute is, of course, the B word aka Brexit. Its role is significant in the collapse of casual dining restaurants on the high street. For when the result of the referendum was announced, there was a subsequent collapse in the pound. Not only did this increase the cost of many items on a restaurant’s shopping list, but it also had specific consequences for those such as Jamie’s Italian and Carluccio’s, whose USP was in sourcing ingredients from Italy. Unfortunately for them, the cost to buy ingredients from Italy sky-rocketed. When coupled with spiralling property prices and increased National Living Wages (which were actually already having an effect post-crash and pre-Brexit) the ability to survive on the high street was seriously under threat. Even more so when taking into account the increase in business rates and VAT; all of which combined to create the perfect storm.
Don’t underestimate location…
What made matters worse for Jamie’s Italian, for example, are the types of space that many of the restaurants occupied. Often large and often listed, these qualities lent glamour to the restaurant chain, but ultimately the rents were not affordable long term. They were only manageable when business was booming. This same problem was faced by a number of the casual dining restaurants currently suffering and falling into administration. For Cau, their choice of location (slightly out of the way) and rapid over expansion were the primary reasons listed for their failure, by Deloitte. When jostling for competition on the high street positioning is important, but this can be circumvented if the offering is unique enough.
Casual dining restaurants like Byron may have started the burger trend, but, unfortunately, they weren’t able to keep up with the exciting variety now on offer. You can check out our review of the best burgers in London here. But finish reading this first! That is, if you think it’s interesting how mid-market chains like Prezzo simply weren’t special enough to hey presto people out of their homes. We’ll look at the ways restaurants can get that extra edge further down. What informs that list however, is an understanding of which restaurants are doing well despite the hazardous environment they operate within.
Buck that trend cowboy…or girl
Amidst the competitive landscape of casual dining (a market which has seen the number of restaurants up by 16% since 2010) some winners have emerged. Nando’s reigns supreme with double digit growth reported and continued expansion in the UK. Wagamama has similarly expanded, mainly overseas, and has also shown significant growth. Then there’s Dishoom with its 47% boost to turnover last year and subsequent decision to expand into a few major cities. Rosa’s Thai Cafe is similarly on an expansion mission after receiving massive investment. But it’s also smaller independents like Mowgli, Honest Burger and Giggling Squid that have found their feet with their street food concepts.
What are they and others doing right then?
We’re glad you asked as we have put together the below list, which suggests how casual dining restaurants can thrive on the high street.
Get busy online, or get busy dyin’ is the basic tenet here. Being able to do takeaway and delivery is really quite essential for a casual dining restaurant on the high street. But there are other elements to being online. See Wagamama’s ‘Uber-style’ payment app, Qkr! for instance. By partnering with Mastercard, Wagamama has made the dining experience much more convenient for casual dining customers, as they can now pay when they like. So they don’t have to wait around to be serviced if in a rush. They can also split the bill. It is these kinds of pioneering details which can make the difference on the high street.
Hit the Spot
Obviously the reasons behind the success of many casual dining restaurants are manifold, but the marriage of tasting and looking great is important. For people to schlep into town they want visual splendour as well as taste sensation. This is where Mowgli and Dishoom really stand out. Their welcoming, yet exotic decor creates an environment which is detailed and luxurious for a casual dining hang out. This gives them the edge to out perform. Of course their delicious food is the real beauty, but comforting surroundings that blend perfectly with the food certainly helps. We are happy to work with clients like Comptoir Libanais, who also lead the field in this arena with their bright, colourful, middle eastern style restaurants that perfectly match their vibrant food.
Mix of services
This is an interesting one based on being experience-led. We all know millennials love experiences…Well, so do most people really. Whether it’s Gen X and baby-boomers sitting pretty in their bought homes or Millennials and Gen Z piling out of their rented accommodation, people do crave community and experiences. So one way casual dining restaurants can capitalise is by offering a mix of services that require a punter’s presence, such as Comptoir Libanais having a souk-style market in their restaurants.
Another leader in this field is Yard Sale. Through a clever partnership strategy they have been able to collaborate with awesome products and people. For instance, bringing over New York chef Anthony Falco (from legendary Roberto’s pizza in New York) to run a series of special events and masterclasses as well as to create limited edition pizzas. Dead Dolls House in Islington does casual dining but it also provides a forum for thought-provoking events, such as Scarlet Ladies UK who talk sex, body confidence & feminism.
The Cosy Club brand may not be big in London but is certainly getting very cosy around the rest of the U.K.. Rather than succumbing to the trap of taking over previously abandoned A3 lots, they have instead been converting former A1 retail spaces. With their great value menu, at the lower end of the price scale, their versatile offering and clever open design, they now have 137 locations and have grown by 25 each year for the past three. The opposite approach has been made by Benito’s Hat who have downsized their restaurants but expanded their sites by offering take away.
Benito’s managing director Mike Pearson said: “The whole beauty of the smaller format is that 80% of our product in our existing stores is taken away. When you can do a 400 sq ft site, the rents are considerably lower but you’re still able to generate 80% of the revenue you would have if you had 50-60 seats.”
Last, but not least…
This is a small and obvious one, but if a casual dining restaurant has an enticing wet offering that can work too. People will come in for one drink after work, but end up having a couple plus some nibbles and maybe even a whole meal! Never underestimate the power of booze for the Great British Public!
The future looks dicy for casual dining restaurants. Especially with the prediction of specialist business property adviser Christie & Co saying they “expect at least another two or three restaurant groups to fall before the year is out.” The sector could wait for the government to bring in the proposed Amazon tax which would help them with rents and overall outgoing costs…But when has it ever been a good idea to trust the government? Not lately anyway. So beware the high street no longer casual dining restaurants; we’ve got your back. Also, did we mention we do PR?
In case you can’t be bothered to make your own and seeing as the weather is more dubious these days, why not try one of our recommendations for best burgers in town?
But first, it’s worth knowing that many restaurants participate in the Mr. Hyde National Burger Day celebrations which offer exclusive discounts. Simply visit the website, fill in a form for your chosen venue and download the voucher to your phone.
We’ve marked the burgers that are part of the scheme below.
Best Burger for Size
If you want a bun and patty the size of a main course plate, then you better head to Smith & Wollensky. Weighing in at 5lb this mammoth burger is eight times the size of their usual burgers and includes a hash brown, roasted Portobello mushrooms, beer battered onion rings, streaky bacon, mozzarella, confit tomatoes, fried eggs and jalapeno sauce.
What’s more you can eat the pre-ordered burger for free, IF you can finish it that is. The only condition of this Man vs. Burger showdown is that only one person may attempt the gargantuan feat. Don’t forget to book and if you would rather watch the madness unfold while eating something more modest you can enjoy their range of new one-off burgers which include: Prawn and Chorizo burger (£15), Dirty-Double cheeseburger (£13) and their Braised Short Rib burger (£13).
Best for Classic Fast Food
When we say classic fast food, we don’t mean you should actually head to Maccy Ds or Burger King, but rather test out the best imitation of those kinds of burger. Except this time they include delicious well sourced ingredients and therefore cost a lot more. But believe us, it’s worth the extra sheckles when you try either of the following two burgers…sorry we couldn’t decide.
First up is Hawksmoor’s Big Matt. No prizes for guessing which burger this is an homage to…yes, indeed it’s your childhood friend, the Big Mac, but this time the patty has been made from the same grass-fed, dry-aged British beef that Hawksmoor uses for its sirloin. Succulent, simple and with two patties, you will be lovin’ it…
Also high on your agenda for simple, classic fast food should be Shake Shack’s signature Shack Burger. The well charred patty gets sandwiched between the more alternative potato roll, layered with a good dollop of American cheese and, to finish it off perfectly, we would order sliced raw onion, extra pickles and a slab of tomato.
Best for Indulgence
Sometimes you want the richest thing on the menu, so you really can’t do much better than Mac and Wild’s Venimoo burger. Not only does it include a hearty patty that is made from Angus beef and wild venison; the mixture of which makes for a beautifully musky, gamey taste, but the burger bulges out of a brioche bun, oozing cheese and the piece de resistance, a waterfall of Bernaise sauce.
This dripping gold goo not only tastes lavish, it looks so as well, which means you can act like the rich kids of instagram when you post your food porn pic to all your carni friends.
A close second for living life on the indulgent side this National Burger Day is the The Patate, which pops up in various locations around London. It eschews the patty in place of a pleasantly unctuous portion of beef bourguignon that sits in a bun inside a camembert box and of course comes with a chunk of melting camembert on top. Oui s’il vous plait!
Best for Feasting
The clue is in the name for this one, as you need to head to Street Feast; Canada Water’s huge indoor/outdoor mega food market. Except you need to head there on Thursday 30 August, i.e. a week after the official National Burger Day. Mr. Hyde and Street Feast have made a clever move here.
By asking all the big burger players to create a one-off special burger for this occasion they don’t detract guests from their restaurants the week before. It’s win win for them and for fans of the humble burger. There will be veterans, newcomers, dessert places and even a vegan debut. Tickets are a little spenny at £15, but you do get an icy-cold Budweiser plus a MacPickleback shot as well as giveaways and games, like Burger Pinata! What’s not to love?
Best for Pork
Bar Bouloud isn’t a burger joint that immediately springs to mind, but then it’s not really a burger joint. It’s a rather classy little restaurant situated in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge and it has a price tag to match with burgers costing between £17 – £24. At the steeper end of the menu is their signature BB burger, which rather extravagantly includes a beef patty, foie gras, short ribs, horseradish mayo, confit tomato and black onion seed bun. While this is a runner up for most indulgent burger, it is obviously not our ‘Best for Pork’ recommendation.
For this, we chose the Piggie, which comes in at a slightly more modest £19. Although when you tuck your trotters in to this exquisitely stacked burger, you’re going to feel like a rich pig in s***. It might not be massive, but it really delivers on flavour because of the addition of BBQ pork. Also accompanying the beef patty you’ll find jalapeno mayo and red cabbage, which sits inside a cheddar bun. It’s just delicious and due to the price, a good one to try for a treat, like National Burger Day for instance…
Best for Chicken
Long reigning chicken supreme are the Chick ‘n’ Sours burgers, which are filled sky high with chunks of ridiculously crisp free-range chicken and slathered with crackalicious sauces. Unsurprisingly, you will make a mess, but thankfully, you won’t care, as this is the best fried chicken in mother-cluckin’ town! Therefore, we advise not taking a date there to avoid your Genghis Khan-got-the-munchies impression going down like a condom balloon. Our favourite is the K Pop – Fried thigh, Gochujang mayo, chilli vinegar & Asian ‘slaw, all for £12 and best enjoyed with their Hunan Cucumbers and Dripping Fries.
Best for Vegans
Now because options are limited for the vegan brigade, we thought we’d be extra kind and throw in two options here. One allows a vegan to go to a restaurant with their omnivorous mates and the other is for going full vegan.
Let’s start with the former as it’s the most inclusive – to humans anyway 😉 – it’s Patty & Bun*; everyone’s favourite hipster burger hang out that makes rather naughty sloppy burgers that leave you looking like you’ve rolled around in them! Luckily for a vegan, they can get the same effect from their Whoopi Goldburger. Inside the bonsoy bun is a tempeh and mushroom fritter which is crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside and when combined with the double-smoked vegan gouda cheese, you get the oozing, stringy hit to the mouth that makes you smile…in a cheesy way.
For a National Burger Day worthy of your vegan crew, we recommend The Full Nelson in Deptford. It might be a schlep for some, but it’s totally worth it for the multiple options on their veggie/ vegan menu. We like things spicy so recommend the Sith burger. The “beef” burger comes with Deptford Death sauce, Sriracha mayo, spicy cheese, jalapenos, onion & more hot sauce, as well as tomatoes, pickles and finely chopped lettuce! Winner, winner, vegan dinner.
*Participating in the Mr Hyde 20% discount deal on selected burgers only.
We hope one of those tickles your fancy this National Burger Day, but if not, let this food & drink PR agency know what you think is missing from our list by commenting below! Also, if you are making your own at home, check out our guide to how best to assemble your burger.
In anticipation of National Burger Day on August 23 we thought we would give you our top tips for assembling the perfect burger; learnt from our MANY trips to the ever increasing burger restaurants around London.
About The Bun
Sometimes the bun is the last ingredient in a burger to get any attention, but in recent years it is finally being treated as more than an edible plate/ glorified patty holder. The added flavour and overall structure it can bring are serious considerations, for those who want to bring their best burger game. So which bun should you buy?
If you are doing things the American way, where biggest is best, then we recommend the Ciabatta roll; its thick crust allows for a sturdy grasp and provides structure for even the juiciest burger. However, it can be too hard, so remember to do the squeeze test in store or at least eat them fresh that day. With an excellent bread flavour, the Ciabatta roll also contributes to the overall taste.
If flavour is your most important criteria then we recommend the brioche. Those Frenchies knew what they were doing when they created the brioche and it mainly involved adding more eggs and butter! By doing so the brioche is slightly richer, sweeter and more dynamic in flavour, but never overpowers the other ingredients. It also makes the bun lovely and soft, but this does not affect the durability as this extra absorbency helps to soak up all the juices.
If you’re a bit of a renegade, but like giving a nod to the past, then you could try an English muffin. We know it might seem crazy, but give this little guy a try and you won’t regret it. Its round shape and sturdy structure makes it quite the neat little treat. You must toast* it first though and why not add an egg to give your burger the breakfast club treatment?
Last, but certainly not least is the Milk bun. Gaining in popularity all over, the milk bun is sturdy so means you can go wild with your ingredients list, but is also light in texture so that it mops up all those juices. This creates a very flavourful experience and one which is considerably more savoury than a brioche, due to the way it is made. However, because of its recipe it is slightly sweeter than a normal white bun and a lot less fatty. Overall we think the balance of flavours in a milk bun is best, but it is always fun to switch the bun depending on what else you’re throwing in…
It is worth toasting whichever burger bun you choose as it makes it much firmer and gives the bun an extra crispness!
Lettuce Call The Whole Thing Off
So now we come to the crucial consideration of how to assemble everything that goes in between the bun. This is where things can get controversial. Remember the debate that raged across the internet when Google released their burger emoji, positioning the cheese beneath the patty, while all other emojis, from Apple to WhatsApp, put the cheese on top of the patty?
Well, if you’re not sad enough to have got involved, don’t worry, because you would probably have said ‘above the patty’ and you would’ve been right. After all, that is how you melt cheese; by putting it on the burger while it sizzles away! Not only do you want to have that cheesy hit in the roof of your mouth so the top of your tongue gets the full experience, but the cheese also holds the other toppings in place.
The ingredient which seems to divide people the most, actually, is the lettuce leaf. Some believe it should be on the bottom, to act as an extra barrier between the burger juices and the bun, while others believe it should sit on top, for pure purtiness. We think the former is certainly a valid option if your burger is hemorrhaging juice, but we would rather recommend the latter, based on the inclusion of tomato.
Tomatoes bring tang, refreshing juice, sweetness and colour to a burger. You’d be mad not to include it and when you do it is best to put the lettuce above it. This way the lettuce is never directly on top of the patty (which is a burger faux-pas as the heat from the patty will wilt the lettuce and make it limp and slimy). Also, having the lettuce on the tomato stops the lettuce from sliding around, especially if you have lots of sauce up there. Another tip here is to put your onion rounds on top of the lettuce to weigh it down. The added benefit of this is how they will also catch the condiments and stop your sauce from spilling out.
So we’ve reached the final furlong; what to put under your patty. First up, it’s the pickles! You nearly forgot about them didn’t you? Well, don’t. They are an extremely important ingredient for bringing an extra dimension of flavour to your burger. However, you are free to include whatever veg you prefer, like salsa, olives, mushrooms. The only rule is that because they are small and irregular in size, they need to go under the patty so they can be weighed down and not fall out of the burger.
Another way to ensure these bad boys don’t fall out is by adding sauce to the bottom bun, but which sauces go where? We believe in dividing them up to avoid it oozing out between your fingers and making a right ol’ mess. Mayo is lighter and more delicate so suits being slathered on the top bun, so we would add our mustard and ketchup to the bottom bun, but we know that some prefer to taste the strong tomato/ mustard flavour first, so swapping your sauces around here is an option.
So there we are. We made it through the gauntlet of which ingredients go where when you assemble your burger. And just to make it super simple for you, here is the order from bottom to top:
Pickles or small extras
Head Chef Tom Cook at Smith & Wollensky London says “Always let your patty sit before stacking to avoid the juices going everywhere. This is because the saturated fats in a beef burger liquify when hot, so if you let the burger cool a little they’ll solidify and stop you dripping juice all over the place.” We wouldn’t be a very good PR agency if we didn’t get a quote from one of our clients now would we?
Now go forth and find your ingredients while we do a sun dance! And in case we’ve had all the sun we’re going to get this summer, check out this PR agency’s review on where to seek out the best burger joints this National Burger Day.