Small multi-site operators seeking to move to the next level need to expand cautiously and avoid the pitfalls of over-reaching, a panel of leaders hosted by CGA vice president Peter Martin advised at the Casual Dining show.

The issue of over-expansion has been in the headlines following closures and CVAs from several sizeable casual dining names lately—prompting other brands to row back on their rollout plans this year.

Jo Fleet (pictured left), managing director of six-strong casual steakhouse concept Flat Iron, said the brand would be opening “two or three” new sites a year for now. In previous jobs at the Gondola group, Fleet oversaw the launch of hundreds of new Ask and Zizzi restaurants—but brands need to be much more watchful now, she suggested. “You’ve got to be really careful. In my Ask days we were opening 20 or 30 restaurants a year, but that’s not going to happen now… you need to do it slowly and be quite choosy.”

Lesa Kleidon, head of brand at Scandi-inspired café, bar and retail concept KuPP, agreed that expansion is harder now than in the past. “It’s not easy at the moment—everyone needs to be thinking on their feet, and things can change really quickly.” KuPP has just launched its fourth site and is exploring more new openings with John Lewis as well as internationally as it seeks to reach ten sites in a couple of years’ time.

The third member of the Casual Dining show panel, Hubbox founder Richard Boon (pictured right), said his brand was unlikely to follow the lead of the rapidly expanding Loungers, whose co-founder Alex Reilley is now chairman of his business. “We’ve never seen Hubbox as getting to 200 sites… we’d like to get to 20 and see where we are. For us it’s about getting the product right and consistent—that’s the difficult bit as we grow.”

The panel also discussed the challenge of delivery, which presents both an opportunity and a threat to restaurant operators. Boon said delivered sales represented a sizeable chunk of business at some Hubbox restaurants, but needed to be handled with care. “It’s a challenging part of the business, and it eats into the margins. The challenge is keeping the quality right. We have a great product and culture, but how do you deliver that in a box?”

The three leaders agreed that growing small brands was exhilarating as well as challenging. “Being small you can really set the foundations for growth—get the right people and culture in place… I hope we’re able to keep the culture as we grow, and keep having fun,” said Fleet.


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