Small but mighty: independent casual dining

Small but mighty: independent casual dining

Down almost every high street in the UK, there will be a blend of independent and chain businesses. When it comes to casual dining businesses, at the rate of speed and area coverage that some brands have grown, you will happen upon them from one town to the next.

Such growth is not a bad thing – it is often a sign that the business is doing well, making sales and seeing a high demand to be in more areas. In order to grow, these businesses often need to seek investment from big conglomerates, which then receive a stake in the company and, therefore, the owner loses some of their equity.

Competing alongside these big brands are independents. These small businesses are often close to the hearts of their communities, they are fiercely fought for by locals and the owners are often local to the community themselves. There are towns that are so proud of their independent shops and restaurants that they have kept the chains at bay. As a result, you get a sense that there is a bit of a rivalry between the chains and independents – or at least their die-hard supporters.

When Honest Burgers entered Bristol, co-founder Tom Barton commented about the pressure to win over locals because the city is so proud of its homegrown businesses. This was eased by the site’s exclusive burger special, for which it collaborates with local producers Westcombe Dairy and Pilton Cider, to show support for businesses in the area.

Furthermore, research last year by GoKart found that 50% of people are concerned that their local high street is being overrun with restaurant and fast food chains. An alarming 37% said that they had seen one or more of their favourite local independent restaurants shut down in the previous 12 months, while 42% believed that the government should limit the number of national and multi-national chains opening on high streets, suggesting the support that is out there for independent operators.

Some members of the general public may protest about the rise of chains, but, in order for the high street to cater to as wide a market as possible, there has to be a place for both chains and independents when it comes to eating out.

“I understand the appeal of a chain from a customer’s point of view,” says Ross Gibbens, head chef and owner of Wellbourne in Clifton. “There is a comfort for some diners and they already have a level of expectation – you pretty much know what you’re going to get wherever you may be. If you’re in an area you don’t know, have one chance to eat out or a particular budget, sometimes it may feel like a gamble going to a local independent for the first time.”

Gibbens and his Wellbourne co-founder Michael Kennedy have teamed up with Seldon Curry and Liberty Wenham of Wallfish Bistro to combine their two independent restaurants, following the news that Wallfish was due to close. It is by being independent operators that they were both able to do this and reap the benefits.

“It certainly made it easy to achieve because as two independents you make the decisions yourself,” adds Gibbens. “We can consolidate our customer bases and fill positions with people who are completely committed and invested in the restaurant.”

Benefits

Speak to any independent restaurateur and they will tell you how great it is to make business decisions without having to answer to anyone.

“For us, the creative freedom of independence is totally essential,” says Stephen Tozer co-founder of Maison Bab, which is part of Mercer Walk in Covent Garden. “We can be bold and unique in our food, our formats and our interiors. We can innovate more and be unconventional. We have time to pour love and attention into our restaurants. We’re not being pushed or rushed into opening more sites, or constrained in our thinking.”

For some operators, the desire to be independent begins from the initial idea of opening a restaurant. It dictates how they approach the launch and funding. Tommy Heaney, owner of Heaney’s in Cardiff, turned to a fellow operator for guidance: “I was approached by investors a few years back, but it’s nice to have full control over a project and I really wanted to launch a restaurant on my own,” he says. “I turned to Gary Usher for advice; he was brilliant and was the one who told me about Kickstarter and crowdfunding campaigns. We ended up raising £41,926 from 356 backers.”

As you don’t have the number of sites or the size of a team that a chain does, looking to fellow independent operators can be incredibly beneficial. The opportunity to converse with each other for advice and support can create a community in itself. This is actually the case with the Alliance of Independent Restaurants (AIR).

“Years ago, I was invited to join three or four other independent restaurateurs who used to meet in Richmond once a month – we’d sit around a table and we would talk about what was going on with our restaurants,” recalls Paul Merrett, co-founder of AIR. “I can talk to another restaurant owner in an honest, open way about the challenges and often the negative side of the industry in a way that I can’t with my general manager. There was real value in discussing those problems because inevitably someone around that table would say, ‘I think I know someone.’”

That group of people, Merrett explains, grew to 14, which led to the creation of AIR. It is now a group of more than 200 restaurant owners, which Merrett claims gives each one a similar presence to that of a chain, resulting in huge benefits.

“One of our aims was to be able to go to suppliers and explain that we don’t have 24 sites – we’re not Bill’s or wagamama, but together we are a group of 200 restaurant owners and so we want the same price and the same deals, because we now have scale. If you own 20 restaurants, you’re going to get a much better deal than if you own one. It doesn’t matter how nice you are or how good you are, it’s just about scale.”

While only being responsible for one or two sites may seem like a benefit, not having the scale of a chain restaurant does give sole independents a disadvantage when it comes to sourcing and supply – among other things.

Challenges

It is agreed that not having to answer to anyone managing above you is a great thing about being independent. However, what this inevitably brings is an immense amount of responsibility. Being the decision maker, you have to make all of the decisions. It’s all hands on deck, but what is it like when all of those hands are yours?

“You don’t have a huge head office full of marketing managers and sales managers – you’re sailing your own boat,” says Merrett, who owns his own three-site gastropub company The Jolly Fine Pub Group. “This morning I’m doing a bit of marketing and then I’m going to cook something and then this afternoon I’ll interview someone – you cover all bases.”

As a result, your business becomes your life, therefore restaurateurs who insist on being independent need to be incredibly passionate about what they do or face failure, with no one around to hold your hand or pick up the pieces.

Furthermore, not only do independent operators have the responsibility of the company on their shoulders, but they also technically don’t have completely free rein, due to consumer demands and trends.

“Of course, you’re not really your own boss, because the customers are the people that you serve,” explains Merrett. “There is a sense of ‘I’m not having to tip my hat to a board of crusty old money lenders who can tell me what to do’. If I wanted to go 100% vegan tomorrow, I could – although my customers probably wouldn’t let me! It’s not realistic, but it’s nice to know you could if you wanted to.”

Other challenges of going independent include costs – with little help or backing, money goes quickly, and with so many operators on the high street, some of which are struggling, receiving funding is harder than ever. The difference is that these challenges are not exclusive to independents, but applicable to all operators in the industry.

“The challenges are in every industry article you read at the moment – rents, rates, staff costs, the cost of produce, general maintenance, rubbish collection, equipment hire, accounting, things breaking, payroll,” Gibbens rolls off. “The list is long and costly.”

The determination and passion necessary to succeed in the restaurant industry carries across chains and independents. We are always told that you don’t get in this business for the money. The difference between the two is that an independent business generally only rests on one or two pairs of shoulders. But where there is little risk, there is little reward. Taking the responsibility and making the decisions yourself means that success is that much sweeter.