In 2014, everyone was opening – and talking to me about – ‘neighbourhood’ restaurants. Often a confected agenda that prompted an uncomfortable peer into a business that was very clearly not interested in anything more than the ‘neighbourhoods’ cash, but whatever.
Lurching forward into 2018 and the remnants of this brief epoch still linger. London, in particular, is a warrenous (not a word; should be a word) city, abrim with distinct cultural departments. Hackney isn’t Dalston. Neither is Shoreditch. And a Notting Hill day tripper would likely be aghast at all three.
Neighbourhood restaurants, in this context, make some sense. They can develop an offer with their nearest and soon-to-be dearest in mind, and extend their roots in the community by hiring and sourcing locally. Except, this isn’t what the London of the future will look like.
So, let’s talk about that neighbourhood, shall we? With a revolving door of renters, prompted to move more frequently by their peripatetic career paths, and enabled by an increase in portfolio work and remote working, who exactly makes up this community? I moved to Shoreditch in 2008. It’s not Shoreditch anymore, at least not the place I moved to. Some may argue this is no bad thing; I’d argue gentrification is stripping our city of life and lustre.
Irrespective, a lot changes in a decade (hello iPhones, goodbye Britney). And restaurants – despite legends to the contrary – have relatively comparable lifespans to other high street offers. This brilliantly titled report, based on those out west (think LA, not Glamorgan) suggests that the median lifespan of a restaurant is roughly 4 and a ½ years. Plenty of time to build a community, right?
Because the same forces that are at play in our own lives are scything through businesses. Rents and rates are going up. Retention rates are going down. The sum total of this shake-up is that, except in rare occasions, what might have made a restaurant a ‘neighbourhood’ kinda place in 2014 – the team, their service and the product they were able to produce – won’t be there in 2016. Even if they’re still open in 2018, what’s really left behind?
We’ve always craved ‘new’. And we’ve never had access to more seductive newness than we do today. For restaurants, new doesn’t sound quite so sexy. New means more waste, more labour, more marketing. New sounds expensive.
New is invariably a young person’s game. Mature businesses have embedded cultures and systems that, often for the right reasons, slow them down. New becomes the enemy of an operation looking to refine past success, not pivot to fresh ones.
So, how can a customer-orientated business, that wants and needs to improve what it does every day, find a way to stay relevant, noteworthy and new? The future has it figured out.
Did I say the future? I meant the present.
Co-working, mixed-use property, and short-term office leases are the result of a changing landscape. Property developers want to spread risk, smaller businesses demand greater flexibility and more people are empowered to work either remotely or in small teams.
The restaurants of the future will follow their lead, assembling small teams for short bursts in a series of new settings. One might argue that Dinerama, Street Feast and the like already offer this – wall-to-wall epicurean ephemerality – but the residents of these venues are far from transient. They’re building their business. They’re testing and trying and growing, in an environment that is more-lab-than-restaurant.
In the future, mature restaurant concepts, with noted chefs and potent marketing plans will descend on a location, fix it up, serve their fare for a few weeks, and nip off to somewhere new. Their business models will embrace change, refining the commodity of ‘new’ as they shed team members and menu items. They won’t be embattled with rent for closed Sunday nights and lean Monday lunches.
The restaurants of the future will be able to surgically target a clearly defined audience and they’ll benefit from ordering a finite stock to serve their guests. Here today and gone tomorrow, all by design. Welcome to the future of restaurants.