Chicago rekindles hospitality passions

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At GS Systems we’re serious about growth. Not only for our many multi-site clients working in the hospitality, leisure and retails sectors. But also for ourselves, as an innovative IT consultancy using EPOS-driven tools.

After all, we always want to ensure we stand out from our competitors in an overcrowded EPOS marketplace.

As a technology business we’re committed to giving our clients every possible competitive advantage through the smart application of EPOS and associated technology.

Boost our understanding of operator challenges

To do this successfully, we’re constantly looking to improve our understanding of the workings of the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors from an operator’s perspective as well as our own IT viewpoint.

We’re one of the few EPOS providers to appoint former hospitality and retail operators to key positions because we appreciate the importance of everyone speaking the same language. How can we understand your challenges as operators if our team hasn’t experienced them as well?

Joined 58,000 delegates in Chicago for the NRA show

Naturally, GS operations director Richard Tarran and myself jumped at the offer to join a select group of UK operators to visit Chicago to attend the National Restaurant Association (NRA) show.

This is a remarkable event with over 58,000 delegates attending and 2,000 companies exhibiting at the four-day event held in Chicago’s McCormick Place.  Certainly nothing in the UK compares to the sheer size and scope of the exhibition that caters for a domestic restaurant industry employing 12.8m Americans in 960,000 locations with annual sales approaching a truly mouthwatering $604bn.

As well as attending the show, there was also the opportunity to  experience first hand numerous innovative and exciting USA hospitality concepts as guests of the UK’s Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) and the indefatigable Propel Info team – thanks for looking after us so well Jo, Paul and Sharon.  (You can read the views of four fellow delegates by clicking on their names: Luke Johnson, the sector investor who runs Risk Capital Partners; Paul Charity, managing director of Propel Info; David McHattie, chief executive of the ALMR; and Eddy Passey, operations director of Beds and Bars).

Americans spend 42% of food expenditure dining out

Invaluable insight to the city’s hospitality market was provided by the engaging and highly knowledgeable Kevin Higar, the director of research and consulting for Chicago research specialists Technomic. Kevin shared some great statistics with us. In the USA the average household used to spend 50% of its food budget eating out before the credit crunch. Even though that figure has now dropped to 42%, it’s still far greater than the UK’s 30%.

The trip was worth every single penny because it highlighted to me why to all us should be passionate about our roles at GS – and why we should be proud to operate in the UK hospitality sector.

On a more practical level, I’d like to share three key findings with you.

Concepts already available in London if not rest of UK

First, the UK has a lot to shout about when it comes to matching our transatlantic hospitality peers.  We’re not far behind in terms of concepts.

A lot of what we saw and tasted is already available in London, if not Manchester and other major UK cities.

For instance, we had a great evening meal in a restaurant with an quality meat-based ‘all you can eat’ menu. A super operational concept but one GS clients like Viva Brazil and Bem Brasil are already offering over here in UK.

However, the USA probable leads when it comes to wacky niche ideas.

Who would have thought about selling handheld meatloaf cup cakes topped with mash potato (the Meatloaf Bakery)? Or a tea shop chain (in a land synonymous with coffee) selling bubble gum flavoured tea (Argo Tea)?

USA scores highly on showmanship

Second, the USA scores highly when it comes to showmanship.

From the uninhibited sales patter of NRA exhibitors asking us numerous open questions to the drama, banter and sheer exuberant fun of ‘open‘ kitchens preparing our food, the USA certainly knows how to entertain and engage.

A simple ‘kebab’ restaurant (Roti) becomes so much more as customers interact with staff to create dishes to suit their particular tastes. Everything in the restaurant is very friendly and extremely fresh and inviting.

Watching staff have fun is contagious

Likewise, a trad burger bar (Five Guys) has an open kitchen/counter where customers can see orders being made. As Kevin says, this creates a ‘fresh, better for you’ perceptual halo. Watching staff have fun as they cook is often contagious.

Third, the USA scored really highly on customer service.  Invariably almost all the venues we visited really focused on good service and were really engaging.

100% focus on customer satisfaction impressive

Whether it’s front of house staff dependence on tips to top up the wages or an inherent national American characteristic, the 100% focus on the customer is impressive.

Again, many of our UK operators already emulate extremely high levels of customer service. One of our clients Living Ventures immediately springs to mind. However, these standards still tend to the exception rather than the rule.

A challenge for the UK is how do we match the USA?

Better training, greater staff empowerment and a wider use of technology, including really getting to grips with the power of social media to engage with customers, are three ways I think our industry can make a difference.

Thumbs up for ice cold water on tap – are you listening UK?

Finally, a personal thumbs up to the USA for a service I wish all UK restaurants would emulate.

Every venue we visited automatically offered us free iced water from the tap as soon as we walked in.

That’s a great touch.

This gesture takes all the embarrassment out of asking for ice water (no more ‘tight git’ murmurs) and adds to the guest experience without any extra cost. If you’re driving and not drinking, ice tap water it is an alternative to buying a soft drink you don’t really want.

It’s nice not to have the pressure.

Cheers!  That’s worth celebrating. Just like the USA. And the UK!

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