Regional restaurant revolution

Consumers eating out at Wetherspoons

The UK has a soaring appetite for informal dining in pubs, restaurants and cafés

According to a new report, dining out has increased regionally, with the trend now stronger outside of London for the first time. This can surely only be good news for the nation’s wholesalers and suppliers

Neon light bulbs spell out the name of Brighton’s latest eating-out venue, but the real dazzler is the menu listings, with plenty of vegetarian and vegan options, many reflecting the trend for street food.

When the Brighton music pub The Hope and Ruin opened on 12 February, it boasted a restaurant that the owners believe will draw in the crowds as well as the musicians they host, especially with the kitchen located inside the back of a vintage caravan.

The decision to include a restaurant in what had previously been a spit and sawdust gig venue is a smart one given that a new report by foodservice market research agency Horizons shows visits to pub restaurants are growing.

It recently commissioned a survey of the nation’s eating out habits over the two-week Christmas period in 2014, and says the results are an encouraging sign that the sector is recovering, especially in areas outside of the capital.

The Eating Out-Look, conducted online by YouGov amongst 2,194 consumers, found that 71% of respondents had eaten out - compared with 69% over the same period the previous year.

“What’s encouraging is that the eating out figures were stronger in the regions than they were in London. Also, given it was Christmas when many people prefer to eat and entertain at home, more respondents said they were tempted to eat out,” says Emma Read, Horizons’ director of marketing and business development.

The report also revealed that the number of respondents using venues such as restaurants and pub restaurants had risen in six months, from 47% to 51%.

Banging the Brum drum

Birmingham-based restaurant critic and food writer Richard McComb says it’s a trend that has become increasingly noticeable.

“The Horizons report bears out what has been happening in the industry for some time, namely the boom in the casual dining sector,” he comments.

“While high-end restaurants outside the capital have faced a tough few years, all the evidence points to a soaring appetite for informal dining, whether that is a pub chain or cool, independent cafe-style operations inspired by the street food movement.

“Diners’ expectations have raised and customers now want better value for money. Serving a few canapés and attempting to pass off a mediocre restaurant as a grand dining experience just doesn’t wash any more,” McComb says.

“By and large, customers perceive the new generation of burger restaurants, reworked pubs and Asian-inspired outlets as offering the best value. Now people have got a taste for eating out, it bodes really well for the market as we move out of recession.”

He says that while London, due to its size and wealth, will always have the head-start when it comes to dining out, many regional cities including ‘second city’ Birmingham are offering a wealth of opportunities for the food sector as it caters for the increasing numbers of young professionals who have either quit the capital or are not interested in moving there due to high living costs.

Indeed the report reveals that 25- to 34-year-olds were the age group most likely to have eaten out during the fortnight (80%). The survey’s results suggest that any increase in eating out is being driven by those on higher incomes (ABC1s) of whom 76% reported eating out in the previous two weeks, compared with 73% last year.

McComb adds: “Reports suggest that if young London professionals are going to quit the capital, then Birmingham is one of their favoured new locations. Again, that has got to be good news for the regional food scene as more money flows into the hospitality economy and chefs  and operators will need to up their game to stay ahead of the pack.”

Ahead of the London curve

The picture is equally healthy in the rest of the UK, with the biggest recovery in eating out recorded in the North, where the number had risen from 70% to 73%, and the East, where the percentage rose from 64% to 75%.

Respondents in these areas, along with the South (72%), reported eating out more often than respondents in London, of which 71% had eaten out in the previous two weeks.

Wales also saw a large hike, with 71% of respondents saying they had eaten out in the previous two weeks, compared with just 61% who had done so 12 months ago.

STM Photography is a Manchester-based specialty food photography studio, which is often commissioned by restaurants for photo shoots, and has noted a recent surge in the restaurant sector in the North West, particularly in Manchester.

Phil Marshall, director at STM Photography, says: “This year alone, there are 22 new restaurant and bar openings expected in the city, and people’s passion for eating out can be heard in conversations wherever you go.

“An appetite for fine dining, new experiences and more premium restaurants has been fuelled by top chefs relocating to Manchester after working in Michelin-starred restaurants outside of the city.

“Manchester is a fantastic place to be for those in the food and restaurant industry. So much passion, skill and experience is put into all aspects of the dining experience – from experimenting with the best local ingredients to ensuring the dishes are aesthetically appealing too.”

Capital continuation

While the rise has been strongest outside of London, the capital continues to offer opportunities for suppliers. Simon Coles, business development manager for ingredients at London-based Leathams, says he has noticed an increase in enquiries from new businesses.

Leathams, which supplies among its products fresh and ‘added value’ vegetables such as tomatoes and grilled peppers, has also seen a rise in the number of businesses expanding from one unit to opening up in a second or third location.

Coles, who is based in Birmingham, says from his own observations there is yet more activity to come.

“I would say that in Birmingham alone there are chefs working in branded operations that are thinking now is a good time to go independent,” he adds.   

However, the Horizon’s report shows that branded operations are still highly visited with JD Wetherspoon the most commonly cited venue of respondents who had eaten in a pub restaurant (14%), with Brewers Fayre (8%) and Harvester (7%) second and third respectively from a given list.

Wetherspoon spokesman Eddie Gershon says that one of the reasons the chain is popular is that it offers a menu to suit all tastes with competitive prices.

“We have a number of vegetarian and gluten-free meals available on the menu,” he adds.

“Our menus change twice yearly and we are always looking to improve our offering. Families are very important to Wetherspoon and we are seeing more families than ever eat at our pubs.

“Certainly Wetherspoon is seen as an attractive place to enjoy a good quality meal at a fair price. That together with the informality of eating in a pub and good value means that we would expect food sales to keep on rising.”


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