Lessons from Chicago by Kate Nicholls

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I have spent most of the past week in another time zone, writes Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the ALMR. The first half of that literally as I popped over to Chicago for the Propel/ALMR NRA Study Tour – where a further timeslip happened as much of the nightlife seemed to be set in the 1980s – and the second half metaphorically as I since I have got back, I have done little but talk about it.

Going to the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago in itself is an overwhelming experience, it would take several days to see it properly and explore the new products and technology out there – but travelling with a group of operators and suppliers, learning from them, debating and discussing our trade not only brings it alive but enhances it immeasurably. Throw in the on-the-ground research from Technomic, Propel and Elliotts in taking us to some brilliant – and some ‘unique’ – venues, presentations from industry gurus like Jim Sullivan and this is fact finding with a vengeance. The learning experience is phenomenal but I wanted to share with you some of my main take-outs from the trip.

  1. Anything you can do, we can do better: It is ten years since I last went to the US for a trade show and five years since I visited for business. And boy, what a difference that time has made! Then, it was easy to spot the next big trends and to future-map how the UK market would develop. Now, we have not only caught up with our transatlantic cousins, we have significantly upped our game and I think we have overtaken them. The London eating out and nightlife scene is edgier and the northern powerhouse night time economies grittier, matching London and the US experimentally and experientially. Pop-ups and initiatives like Street Feast mean the maelstrom of influences is more dynamic and varied and food porn means that those influences spread more rapidly through the mainstream. I was also struck by the polarisation of the US market – full service or fast casual. All the new food trends on show in Chicago were already in the UK – the big difference was how they were presented.
  2. Speed, premiumisation and the human touch: Where the US market is ahead is in delivering a good quality product quickly. The only real area of growth is in fast casual but whereas in the UK that market is dominated by grab and go chains and impersonal experiences, in the US the focus is on delivering a personalised, fresh product in the time it would take to queue at Pret. Conveyor belt production approaches – what we only see in Subway – were everywhere. From Greek to lobster rolls, American BBQ rolls to sushi, burgers to handcrafted salads and raw food, the mantra is ‘have it your way’. Whether it would work in the UK, where customers are far less inclined to pick off-menu or feel confident enough to personalise their order remains to be seen, but it did highlight the importance of limited service and the fact that this need not be at the expense of speed. Clearly Americans value the human touch.
  3. It’s all about the people: And that brings me to service – previously the one big differentiating factor between the US and UK markets. When we were discussing what we had seen on the tours, this was one point to which people returned time and again. The market was not ahead of the UK except on service. Thinking about this when I got back home and tested out the service in our local bars and restaurants, I’m not so sure that this is actually the case. American service is big, brash and smiley – but just because it is overt and in-your-face doesn’t necessarily mean it is any better. One interesting point I noticed was the very limited point of sale material, particularly in the bars. In the UK, product is very visible and you subliminally absorb a lot of the information you need to make your decision and place an order from a quick look at the beer pumps and back bar. If the beer pumps are plain copper pipes or sculptured fists with no clip or abv displayed, bottled product is stored out of sight and the drinks menu is the equivalent size to an American novel, you are forced to talk to the bartender and rely on their knowledge to help you choose a drink – it appears to be great service, in fact it is great product knowledge (training, training, training) and a confidence to make recommendations which puts our teams to shame. The customer feels they’ve been well served, in fact they have been well sold.
  4. But is it all about the money?: Now, when people talk about fantastic American service, they usually talk about the tip culture and the fact that this motivates staff. Again, I’m not so sure that is the case and the dominance of fast casual and more particularly the limited service conveyor belt fast casual belies that. Staff in full serve or limited serve restaurants were typically on the minimum wage of around $3-4 an hour, but with the standard tip now being 20% for average service and 25% for good, they clearly earn much more. The fast casual staff – where you went up to the counter and ordered even if you ate in the restaurant (many of which put our limited service spaces to shame) were on $10 with no tips – and yet the service and product knowledge was just as good. Obviously it is a huge generalisation, but what seemed to set them apart was a pride in their knowledge, their skills and their work – in some a sense of ownership or alignment with brand values – and from the customers’ side, a respect for a job well done. On neither side of the transaction is there a sense of a dead-end job.
  5. Valuing the night time economy: Shows and study tours aside, what I found most interesting wandering around Chicago as a consumer, particularly in the evening, was how much more relaxed people were about the vibrancy, noise and busyness of the night time economy. Live music is synonymous with Chicago and plenty of bars and nightclubs had their windows open, spilling people and music into the street. Hybridisation means that fast casual restaurants can sell cocktails and you can sit in comfy outside areas drinking from real glasses late into the night. There appeared to be no heavy-handed enforcement, no anxiety by the operators and their teams and, no expectation that there would be a problem. Speaking to one of the board members from the NRA, Fred Thimm, he was surprised when I told him that the police and local authorities in many British cities simply would not let this happen and it is clear that nationally and locally, the sector, its people and its jobs are hugely valued – something we need to continue to promote.

And finally, what I have been asked about most is the technology – it is what most people associate with trade shows after all. My biggest wow moment – seeing a 3D printer which prints with sugar crystals create multi-coloured geometric and interlinked sugar cubes or a mini crystallised skull; I can really see that catching on for distinctive drink and food garnish when the cost comes down. And my biggest disappointment – how far behind such a dynamic market is on ordering and payment technology – going back to swiping a card and signing for a payment took some time to get reacquainted with. I was met with totally blank looks when I asked about contactless and it is clear that this is one area where the American obsession with personal service gets in the way – they have much to learn from us!

And that probably is my biggest take from the four days away – we have so much fantastic innovation going on all around us and it is changing very quickly. The value of the trip is in getting a breathing space from the everyday operations to take time to look and explore but more importantly it is in sharing those thoughts with other operators, bouncing ideas and networking with them. So bring on the next Chicago but in the meantime, let’s explore and celebrate the great operators and experiences we have on our doorstep. Study tour anyone?

Kate Nicholls is chief executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, which, in partnership with Propel, took 44 industry executives to Chicago last weekend for a four-day study tour

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