50 shades of Black And White

50 shades of Black And White

When Brandie Deignan was announced as the new managing director of franchising at Black And White Hospitality, a peer in the industry exclaimed on social media that it was a “great hire” by the company that owns Marco Pierre White Restaurants. Judging from Deignan’s CV, this individual was not wrong.

She has spent all of her professional life in leisure and hospitality, beginning at the Hilton Group where she enrolled in the hotel’s graduate school, through to leading the food, lounge and in-flight elements of British Airways, which she left to join Black And White. She has also worked with Whitbread, Travelodge Hotels and Tesco, on its in-house casual dining offering. Such broad experience with various brands makes Deignan so ideal for the job, it’s no wonder that Black And White sought after her.

“Bringing everything I’ve learned from retail hospitality through to pure restaurants and airlines is required,” says Deignan. “But because it is very different, there has been a lot to learn. It’s a smaller business than I’m used to, so I’m learning to understand the culture and to be a part of the family. We’re at the stage where we’re too big to be small but too small to be big. Then there’s understanding the Black And White way of doing things and understanding each brand – because there are quite a lot!”

There are eight concepts under the Marco Pierre White Restaurants umbrella: Marco Pierre White Steakhouse Bar & Grill, Wheeler’s of St James’s, Wheeler’s Fish & Chips, Mr White’s English Chophouse, Marco’s New York Italian, Bardolino, Koffmann & Mr White’s, and Marconi. The company ended 2018 with 50 sites, with 10 openings planned in 2019. Deignan tells me that there were three openings during her first week in her new role, which didn’t phase someone with her experience.

Brandie on branding

Deignan’s career progression has been natural and organic – a great advert for the industry that is so often challenged with encouraging young people to see hospitality as a career, rather than just a part-time job at university.

“I realised I really loved hospitality once I became a general manager – it really fitted my skills. You get to do an end-to-end type project. You open the restaurant, you manage it, you get your team in and you see the year through. It wasn’t until I got to that stage that I realised I wanted to stay in hospitality and make it a career. I started mapping out where I wanted to be and I wanted to make a difference.”

So, what difference is she hoping to make to Black And White? A point of difference itself, as it happens. Deignan explains just how her experience in other areas of leisure and hospitality have benefitted her.

“Having been outside of restaurants for a couple of years, working with an airline, it’s good because you tend to see things very differently. Although it’s all about food and lounges, it’s a little step away from day-to-day restaurant running – you can take so much away from what else goes on. Sometimes we can be very insular in our industry, so it helps to have that freshness and varied way of thinking.”

As a result, Deignan has big plans for the business. While there are already 10 openings planned this year, she talks a lot about the potential for scalability. Currently, the majority of the eight Marco Pierre White brands franchised by Black And White Hospitality are to hotels. There’s also one in Stadium MK in Milton Keynes and another in Alea Casino in Nottingham. Simply put, Deignan wants more.

“We can scale in most places and there are loads that we can go into,” she says. “It’s about making sure that the retail entry is viable, scaling these spaces and the appropriateness of it. We have one of each model that we’re thinking of scaling, so we can have case studies and learn from them. We just need to be ready. It’s very exciting, because it’s going to be something new for us. Even with hotels, there are brands that we haven’t got the reach with.”

In order to ensure that the offering is viable for different spaces, Deignan explains that the biggest challenge – or “opportunity” – for the business is educating people on their expectations of a Marco Pierre White restaurant, with a preconception that it will be fine dining, no doubt influenced by the three Michelin stars he gained so early on in his career.

This effect that a well-known face behind a brand can have on consumer expectations makes me think about another famous chef who put his name to a restaurant group that has struggled in the last couple of years, facing administration and requiring a large cash injection to stay afloat. Are restaurant visitors still buying into the celebrity chef? Is it enough to have that famous face behind a brand?

“To have that ‘face’ really works, it’s still got legs, it carries weight,” argues Deignan. “But you need to innovate around the individual and the brand to stay ahead. There’s all of the background work you need to do to make sure you’re current, on-trend and capturing all generations. How do you not just focus on the market you’ve got, but start working on the next generation? If you look at Marco, how do we engage the younger generation to have an affinity with him? They may not have been born when he was a famous chef! The endorsement of a chef as high calibre as Marco is still really great, but it needs to filter down all of the generations to make sure that we’re current. That is key.”

It’s been impossible to escape the challenges faced by brands and restaurateurs in the UK, but, being a franchise operation, Black And White’s experience is slightly different. While some of the battles that restaurants are having to fight, such as customer habit and demand, are directly relevant to Deignan and the team, there are others that they are simply watching from the sidelines.

Innovate and reinvigorate

“From an alignment point of view, we feel your pain and we see the challenges, because we’re a commission-based business,” says Deignan. “If our franchised businesses grow sales, we get more money. If they decline, we get less. If they’re profitable, they’re happy. If they’re not, they’re not happy. From a high street challenge point of view, it’s slightly different. Obviously, our model sits in spaces, and depending on where that space is, they could be experiencing problems around business rates and that would affect their profitability, and that would affect us. From an innovation point of view, we need to stay ahead.”

The leisure spaces that the brands tend to be hosted in do give it an advantage. Deignan recognises that there is a captive audience instantly, whether it’s ticket-holders to a match or hotel residents, and the restaurant needs to capitalise on this. While visitors can choose to dine elsewhere, their instant attention is something that the high street does not have. Deignan explains how her experience can help her approach this.

“When I first joined Tesco, in the first week I was fascinated by how much footfall they had. For the high street to get that footfall, it has to work hard. These restaurants and cafés sat within the reach of 10,000 people every day. It took me a while to get my ahead around all this footfall – how do we convert it? It’s the same here. We’ve got quite a lot of residents and we need to give them a compelling offer and a reason to dine with us so that our partners can be profitable. If we don’t do that, then we’re not aligned. There are similarities that we have, but certainly distinct from having a standalone operation and all of the rates. It is slightly different.”

Black And White Hospitality very much has to think about what it’s laying out in front of potential customers. The opportunity that Deignan refers to is all about giving the customer what they want from a dining experience and challenging their expectations so they realise what they want is available to them from Marco Pierre White Restaurants. The launch of Wheeler’s Fish & Chips is a prime example – to cater to the fast-paced society that doesn’t have time to wait for a sit-down meal, but that still wants the food to be high quality. This is the company’s approach to a trend in the trade that is keeping all manner of operations on their toes.

“When I started my career, it was all about tradition – the industry really respected tradition and the traditional ways of doing things,” says Deignan. “Now, our industry really respects innovation. Without the respect for innovation that comes with how society has changed, we don’t actually grow. The challenge is: when do you do it? Do you adjust quicker? Do you wait for the whole world to turn around and then react? On the high street, the businesses that have innovated very quickly have been able to move with the trends. It’s interesting times.”