Will London’s eating-out bubble float across the UK?

Liz O’Keefe

Existing and working in London, you are often accused of living in a bubble that just can’t be compared with the rest of the UK. Usually, I’m the first to resist being labelled like this, protesting that I shop at Tesco like everyone else (it felt good to get that out), I don’t eat out that much (although I do) and there is such a thing as value for money here (I actually believe that one). But the bubble that floats above the London restaurant market is one I readily admit to and it’s fascinating to see a vibrant dining scene that has not only remained largely unadulterated by recession, but managed to pull off phenomenal growth despite prolonged economic downturn.

According to a report released in March by property agents JLL, titled London’s West End: Review & Outlook, a dining scene full of strong Michelin-starred restaurants and “vibrant independents” in London’s West End contribute more than £51 billion a year to the UK economy.

The report revealed that the West End saw its food and drink sales rise 9% year on year, with double-digit growth recorded in the last quarter measured. What’s more, the traditionally less-sought after surrounding streets are now subject to growing interest – a welcome trend that’s expected to continue over the next two years. A buzz is apparently also being caused by the controversial (in some quarters) Crossrail development, which aims to double the capacity of Bond Street and Tottenham Court Road passengers, aka future diners, by 2018.

And it’s not just the posh new restaurants that people are flocking to; the upward movement spans all types of customers and dining occasions. From casual dining to healthy fast food and street food to pop-up supper clubs, London’s caterers are living the dream with more and more people finding eating out affordable, and most importantly wanting to experience new eating establishments and concepts.

This February saw the 23rd consecutive month of positive like-for-like sales growth in the casual dining sector throughout the country, according to Coffer Peach Business Tracker, with London, as always, having the best performing pubs.

It also helps that eating out has become more of an occasion in itself – it’s become what you do on a night out, with a lot of restaurants encouraging you to stay and spend your money all night. Fusion or new cuisine like the Nikkei restaurant Chotto Matte, for instance is taking in as many as 1,000 diners a day during a busy weekend.

Of course, food seems more affordable, too. The advent of Groupon or voucher sites highlighting sometimes too-good-to-be-true deals may not be measured all that accurately, but it’s common sense that it must have some sort of impact on getting mouths through doors and creating a dining out culture, if not always a good effect on short-term profitability.

The influx of supper clubs and pop up restaurants are also putting a dent in the prices charged to consumers and bringing enlightened and enlightening competition into the marketplace, so now organisations like Grub Club are pushing Michelin-starred chefs’ pop ups, where you can reportedly eat like a celebrity for half the price. But in general, restaurants, cafés and bars seem to be offering good value for money.

Or is that my London-centric bubble-fed mentality, again?

Whatever, it’s an exciting time for foodservice and an entrepreneurial environment prime for new ideas and different ways of thinking. Also, with all the plant-based cookery Deliciously Ella and the food blogger brigade are making fashionable, the time is definitely now to push fresh fruit and vegetables forward into the London restaurant scene.

Having popped into St John’s Wood’s Harry Morgan restaurant for a salt beef sandwich and gherkin at the weekend, it occurred to me that we’ve seen success with other forms of grocers or shops transforming into eateries, and the continuity of quality and knowledge transfer makes sense. Harry Morgan opened solely as a butcher and deli back in 1948, and then transferred its skills to a now award-winning restaurant with a franchise at Harrods to boot.

It also worked for the fishmonger-turned-restaurant, London-based Fishworks – and there are probably countless other examples. Consumers like a story behind their food and enjoy learning from those best placed in the food industry. With this in mind, it will be interesting to see what kind of restaurants will materialise from New Covent Garden Market’s redevelopment and whether they will, as they surely should, have fruit and vegetables at the heart of everything they do.

As someone who hasn’t always lived in London, I hope, of course, that the rest of the country will eventually feel the full benefit of this catering boom. The British Hospitality Association has reported that the food and service management sector had doubled its turnover since 1993, and the signs are – as we have written on this site before, that the London bubble could, with the right encouragement, be sucked into the major towns and cities throughout the UK. There are already pockets of potential – I’m certainly keeping my eyes open for the next big hot spot.

During last month [March] alone, 30 new casual dining outlets for the UK were announced and the feeling is that the consumer desire for better, more accessible food is likely to stay on an upward curve. Commercial reality can ebb and flow, but wherever the eating-out trend lays its hat, opportunities lie ahead for those in the fresh produce business who are prepared to jump from the frying pan and make that their fiery home.



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