I love a good headline and last weekend's Guardian website had a stunner. "Who killed London's restaurant scene?", it screamed. Who indeed?
Tough, challenged and competitive definitely, but dead? I don’t think so. Wasn't it only last Tuesday that the wait for a table at Dishoom Kingly Street was still 45 minutes? That’s hardly a sign that rigor mortis has set in.
The one statistic the article quoted to substantiate its claim was a 13% increase in restaurant insolvencies since last year. Yes worrying, but London has always been a tough place to trade with no guarantee of success and business casualties just a reality of the market place.
The piece was right to highlight increasing staff shortages driven by Brexit and concerns about over supply. There’s also increased food costs, business rates and wage costs to add to operators’ current woes. No-one is saying it’s easy out there, but don’t write-off a whole market just because of the demise of a couple of your favourite restaurants.
The truth is that people are still going out to eat and drink in the capital and it remains the most vibrant restaurant and bar scene in the country.
Let’s look at the hard data. Outer London is a market in decline in terms of overall site numbers, but inner London is actually in growth, driven by restaurants and food-led pubs and bars, which together account for 60% of all licensed premises.
According to CGA’s Outlet Index database, the number of managed restaurants grew 9% in inner London over the past 12 months– and yes there have been closures, but still more openings, and especially from smaller operators which now account for 60% of the central London managed restaurant market.
It’s worth noting that even in the outer reaches of the capital – where bigger branded chains, which are retreating in the centre, are more prevalent - restaurant numbers are still on the up, even if overall licensed premise numbers are falling.
In central London the scene is becoming more diverse in its eating-out choices, as the big brands see their combined market share shrink.
Of course, a more fragmented market means more competition for existing players, although for consumers it just means more choice and more new things to try. Not surprising then that Londoners continue to eat out much more frequently than the rest of the country. According to CGA’s BrandTrack consumer survey, seven out of 10 London consumers eat out at least weekly, which is 20 percentage points higher than those in the next highest ranked region, the North West.
Weekly eating-out in London has increased by 15 percentage points over the past five years and shows no sign of slowing – in fact it actually increased over the last quarter. London is not a consumer market in free fall.
Londoners are more experimental, visiting an average of two more new brands or concepts that they haven’t been to before every six months than people outside the capital. This means that half of their eating-out repertoire over that period are places they have previously not visited. So if you are wondering where your customers are, it’s probably not that they are staying at home rather they are trying out something new and shiny.
Yes it’s tough, competition for customers is fierce and, to make it worse, margins are being squeezed by an avalanche of rising costs. But there are still customers out there.
It’s also a far more complex market than ever before, which means you shouldn’t hang your hat on just one slice of data.