Disruptive influencers

The only constant is change, so they say. For anyone in the eating and drinking-out arena that is simply stating the blindingly obvious, writes Peter Martin.

The sector is living through one of its most dynamic periods—with competition coming from all directions, unprecedented numbers of new concept launches and challenging market innovation. Although we would all likely prefer steady evolution, disruptive forces are at work, making that change even more rapid and altogether less predictable. 

That was one of the central themes of this year’s Peach 2020 conference – picked up and developed by all our panelists. Four real-life market disruptors, who all spoke at the conference, are featured on our front cover—Five Guys’ backer Sir Charles Dunstone, London Union’s Jonathan Downey, Dishoom’s Kavi Thakrar and Loungers’ co-founder, and Industry Leader of the Year at our Hero Awards, Alex Reilley. 

All have helped to shake up the market, and are continuing to do so. Street food and its after-dark incarnation, the night market, are perhaps the most obvious manifestations of disruption, giving young city dwellers new and exciting experiences of a weekend. They are going in their thousands, and the organisation that Downey and his like have brought to first Street Feast and now the ambitious London Union project means their influence is unlikely to be transient. 

The important thing about street food is to understand exactly what it is that grabs and excites consumers, because those experiences will influence their habits and preferences when they are out in the general market. Copying the food, the drink and the stalls is one thing; understanding what makes the vibe, the whole package, is something trickier. 

In the same way, why do people queue outside Five Guys’ new stores, even when the brand professes never to do marketing, or wait for hours for a table at one of Dishoom’s growing number of London restaurants? Or what is making Loungers, with its café-cum-bar-cum-restaurant offer, the new hero on many non-London high streets? 

Of course, these four are not alone—there are plenty more messing things up. You may well be one of them—and there were plenty both on the conference panels and picking up trophies at Peach 2020. 

At the heart of these questions of what makes these operators stand out and grab the public’s attention is how we need to be better at getting inside the heads of today’s more demanding, spoiled-for-choice customers. That may be the sector’s biggest challenge. What is it about Five Guys’ burgers or Pizza Pilgrims’ pizzas, or isn’t that the point? 

What is undeniable is the need for all operators to get an edge and be more streetwise, even if they are in the more sedate and well-heeled end of the market and not down among the hipsters. The truth is that the public has more choice than ever before about where to eat and drink out—and is taking advantage of that choice. Trouble is they are not necessarily spending any more or going out much more often, or that’s what our evidence suggests. More supply is not fueling an equal amount of extra demand. Among managed pub and restaurant groups like-for-like sales were growing at just 1.3% year-on-year at the end of September – hardly boom times. 

Standing out from the crowd, learning from our market leaders and disruptors, trying to anticipate the next moves and even becoming a disruptor yourself, all need to be on board agendas for 2016. No one said it was going to be easy.