The Propel trip to the NRA in Chicago this year was really enjoyable, useful and beneficial for a number of reasons:
1. A fantastic group of people: A great range of operators were on the trip including Marston’s, Young’s, Admiral Taverns, Geronimo, Spirit, Burning Night Group, Best Place Inns, Beds and Bars, Draft House, Apartment Group, Anglian Country Inns, Frog Pubs, Bulldog Hotel Group and Innventure. It meant that there was no shortage of lively debate around the concepts we visited from service through to food through to ops standards and kitchen cleanliness. It also meant some of the US restaurant chief executives who presented their brands to us probably experienced a deeper level of questioning than they might have reasonably expected.
There were also a great group of suppliers who were really interesting and good fun to be with including Orderella, Reynolds and trip sponsor CPL Training amongst others. What’s nice is none of them spent time talking about their own businesses, hassling or selling their products. It wasn’t the right time or place. It meant the trip was relaxed and everyone seemed to mix well and get on with one another.
2. Some fantastic restaurant concepts: Propel organised for the group to see some fantastic restaurant concepts including Eataly (www.eataly.com), Publican (www.thepublicanrestaurant.com), Lyfe Kitchen (www.lyfekitchen.com) and Blaze Pizza (www.blazepizza.com). Eataly, in particular, is so different and so amazing that it’s almost worth a trip on its own. It’s an awesome mix of retail and restaurants (23 in total) including a Nutella bar (loved that), Il Gelato, a focaccia bar and a rotisserie. Customers wander around drinking wine and eating food in a very relaxed environment. The branding is just brilliant, too.
Eataly opened December 2013 in 63,000 square foot of retail space and is the largest site in the US, costing an estimated $20 million. It co-owned by Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich and I saw the latter speak at the European Foodservice Summit in 2012 – well worth seeing if you can get to him. Eataly, I hear, is looking for a site in London.
Publican is part of One Off Hospitality, which has a number of individual restaurants in the city (www.oneoffhospitality.com) some of which would definitely work here. Lyfe Kitchen will expand across the USA and could work here (though it is a very complex operation) and the Blaze Company is actively looking for a UK operation to roll it out in the UK.
3. Some poor restaurant concepts: Not everything in Chicago was brilliant. Personally, I didn’t rate Hash House A Go Go, Haute Sausage, The Tilted Kilt, Wow Bao or The French Market, but they all helped put the great operators into context. You can’t help but admire the passion and entrepreneurial ‘get up and go’ of some of these operators but too much menu complexity, poor property choice and/or a lack of understanding on how to deliver consistently commercial margins could all limit their ability to significantly expand.
4. Some great bars: Find a great bar and inevitably you could stay there all night – Vertigo being one of them. Fantastic cocktails, wonderful skyline, pit fire and a great space overall. Special mention has to be given to Howl at the Moon (www.howlatthemoon.com) with its high energy dueling pianos which the team went back to, two nights running. This concept could definitely work in the UK and I know some operators have actively been exploring this concept for London. It was one of the best nights even though some of the bar bills were a bit steep (or maybe the evenings were great because the bar bills were so steep).
5. The show: Having spent time at Hotelympia earlier this year, I really didn’t want to spend more time at the National Restaurant Association show – thought I would see many of the same sort of things. Chris Gerard has produced good notes on his trip, which also include his findings from his visit to the exhibition and he patently found some gems. Yes, the show is the hook to visit Chicago but it’s not the main event by any stretch.
6. Summary: Propel put together a great trip with some awesome people. I learnt a lot, renewed some old friendships and made some new ones. My advice would be to book early but when you are there avoid the Sambuca shots – deadly!
Ann Elliott is chief executive of leading sector public relations and marketing consultancy Elliotts – www.elliottsagency.com