The first time I visited Chicago was some eight years ago and it was a truly memorable few days. This time, with the Propel and ALMR team, was just as memorable in a city that never fails to impress and inspire. One of the main memories from my first trip was proposing to my wife on the 97th floor of the Hancock tower. Thankfully, however, that remains a one-off and this visit the memories are focused much more on the variety of businesses that we visited. Sure, the Restaurant Show is big and impressive, but my memories of Chicago will always be around the people you meet there.
Science, style, focus and 110% determination
I always used to feel that the gap between the hospitality sector in the UK and in America was more than just the Atlantic. Why are they so much better at it than we are? How do they get their staff to deliver great service every time? Where do they get all of their innovative ideas? Why are they so successful? Well as our tour guide said many time, ‘fyi guys’ in my opinion the gap is not as wide as it used to be. Sure, where they get it right, they really do get it right. Watch out for ‘Lyfe Kitchen’ and ‘Blaze Pizza’. In these two, very different concepts we saw the Americans doing it as only they can, with science, style, focus and 110% determination.
A total business plan dedicated to their principles
Lyfe Kitchen delivered healthy eating in a market that usually considers those two words a contradiction in terms. But they didn’t just deliver healthy food. They delivered a total business plan dedicated to their principles. The team at Lyfe has been working on every aspect of their concept for about four years before they then started driving the roll out. A serious investment in the kitchen equipment ensures that they deliver every meal, with never more than 600 calories, within ten minutes. They have put the focus on product quality, ethical sourcing and speed of delivery so that they can serve all day parts successfully, not just becoming a dinner experience. And the food is really tasty. The chocolate dessert we ate was not only vegan, but as full of flavour as anything I have eaten.
They expect to achieve 250 stores within about three years
Blaze Pizza has similarly created a full-blown concept that delivers great pizza, quickly. Whilst we have all had great pizza before and sometimes pretty quickly, generally we judge that either by a take away expectation or a dinner experience. Blaze sets out to deliver a price point and speed of delivery that opens the day-parts up to include lunchtime and claims average sales levels are therefore almost double that of the pizza sector in the USA. The senior team has developed the concept to be a fully franchise business, now ready to start the roll out across the US. With 17 stores trading, 11 on site currently and another 19 agreed, they expect to achieve 250 stores within about three years.
A major investment upfront
Both of these businesses have been established through proper research and development; a major investment upfront, with the eye firmly on the goal of becoming the next big thing. No half measures, no compromise. Get it right and roll it out. This is where we expect to see the Yanks playing. What was a surprise to me this time, though, was the other end of the scale – ‘lifestyle’ rather than ‘life-changing’ business models. We were told that the new trend in the US fast casual market is for doing one thing and doing it really well. This is manifesting itself in smaller outlets focusing on the operators’ passion for their idea. Haute (pronounced Hot) Sausage, The Big Cheese, Wow Bao, Glazed and Infused Donuts, Honey Butter Fried Chicken were all doing exactly what it says on the tin. Almost all were credible and almost all were not scalable. All had the same passion and drive of the bigger boys, but without applying the science and clearly, in at least one case, the passion was never going to be enough.
So I started by saying that I think the gap is narrowing. The US is not automatically the source of great innovation. The most comprehensively impressive business we visited was ‘Eataly’ and it looked very familiar. An authentic Italian concept, that is finding a warm welcome in the States. But what the Yanks still do so much more consistently well, everywhere you go, is employ passionate, talented people that put a smile on your face.
Philip Lay was formerly retail director for SA Brain where he oversaw its expansion into the coffee sector. He currently runs the PHL Ventures consultancy