The US still offers a dazzling array of foodservice choice

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Great show, great city, great crowd, great weather – and great food and drink. What more could one ask for from a business jamboree? I’m sorry: I mean a serious working trip, writes Luke Johnson.

I went as one of a very select gathering for four days to The Windy City last weekend to check out the hospitality industry in America. Our hosts were the unflappable Paul Charity and his uber-organised wife, Jo, together with the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers. The party consisted of about 25 executives from the leisure sector – operators, suppliers and assorted hangers-on. We stayed at the surprisingly comfortable Hard Rock Hotel in America’s Second City (although it’s now the third after LA).

Bakery sector perhaps fastest growing in USA

Eating and drinking inevitably dominated proceedings. On various study tours we sampled over 30 outlets of various kinds – fine dining, fast casual, ethnic, cutting edge and classics. We met with various trade experts from outfits like Technomic, as well as hugely successful restaurateurs like Mike Hislop of Corner Bakery Café. This business is opening almost two branches a week, and along with Panera Bread, dominates the US bakery café segment – currently perhaps the fastest growing part of the foodservice sector. The economics of this operation are impressive: revenues are twice capital employed, and returns are clearly 30%+ per annum.

The exhibition itself is the annual get-together for this enormous trade. It takes place in the cavernous McCormick convention centre, and features thousands of equipment, food and drink suppliers all vying for business. The organisation seems haphazard, so one is almost forced to wander in a random fashion between stands, serendipitously finding interesting new ideas or products. I went around looking at artisan bakers, espresso machines, specialists in customer loyalty and incentives, and menu printers.

America world leader for sheer chutzpah

Unquestionably America reigns supreme as the world leader in the modern restaurant and bar universe. It combines scale, technology, culture and sheer chutzpah to offer a dazzling array of choices – from fine dining fast casual, from brew pubs to steakhouses – and everything in between. It is the opposite of France, where they first invented the restaurant in the 18th century: there everything is presented according to a culinary code, where dishes and serving styles change glacially. But in the US, trends appear from nowhere and suddenly become all the rage – diversity and newness are paramount – as long as there’s steak on the menu, that is.

Chicago is a thriving metropolis

Meanwhile the US is clearly on the upswing. Their economy should grow at 2.5% this year: a rate of expansion of which we can only dream. Chicago itself is a thriving metropolis, booming on the back of the rise in commodity prices, because it has always been the hub of the food trade in America. And it has always had a lively eating and drinking scene, arguably on a par with New York’s. Thanks to pioneers like Rich Melman, the legendary founder of the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant empire, the city has many dozens of exciting and delicious food and drink establishments – most of which appeared to be buzzing.

Crossing the Atlantic re-charges the batteries

In Britain, hospitality entrepreneurs are very fortunate. We can pop across the Atlantic to scout new ideas and take a peek at the future. A quick trip to America to sample what’s new and meet some of the players there is like re-charging your batteries. When bosses of restaurant chains tell you they are opening at least one new branch a week, then you suddenly remember the meaning of real ambition.

We probably ate and drank a little too much, and did enough networking to last several weeks. But I have returned to London surprisingly refreshed, my head full of possible concepts, as ever bowled over by the quality of service – and size of portions (and indeed spirit measures) which are considered standard in the states. The National Restaurant Association show – and indeed Chicago itself – are not for the faint of heart. But for those of a bold disposition, I can’t think of a better way to experience them than with the Propel team, taking advantage of their tremendous contacts and insights, accompanied by a boisterous crew of leisure industry veterans.

I look forward to a re-match next year.

Luke Johnson is founder of Risk Capital Partners and has grown sector brands such as PizzaExpress, Strada, Giraffe and Patisserie Valerie. He is pictured above at a recent Propel event in London.


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