News of Jamie’s Italian going into administration this week has been a long time coming; as we’ve seen with wider competitors like Byron and Prezzo, restaurant closings in the casual dining sector have been a direct result of the brands struggling to move with the ever-changing market and consumer expectations.
Jamie’s restaurant chains had their moment, but weren’t designed with the modern customer in mind, let alone for future customers – so when wider contextual issues such as rising business rates, uncertainty around Brexit (and everything else that has been blamed for the closures) start cropping up, it’s only a matter of time before disaster strikes. So, what actually happened?
Fast casual is dying
The food revolution started about 20 years ago: chains like Zizzi, Prezzo and Carluccio’s sprung up, prices went down, and people started eating out more. Dining became more accessible. However, over the last four to five years the fast-casual sector has ballooned.
There is simply too much choice of restaurants, and competition doesn’t just come from brick and mortar any more – online delivery services are providing consumers with an ever-broader range of choice and convenience to eat on their terms. Moreover, customers are increasingly looking for more authentic and intimate experiences, as seen through the popularity of small concept stores and pop-up restaurants.
Jamie’s Italian restaurants are usually set within massive spaces, typically distributed across two floors, and so simply do not deliver on the dining experience people are looking for. This real estate cost (amid soaring rents) combined with a decreased consumer visitation across the UK’s high streets means fast-casual restaurant brands are suffering as the balloon deflates.
Lack of true identity
Think about the chains mentioned above and more that are still popular today. What do they have in common? They all have a special characteristic or feature that makes them stand out.
Nando’s is the king of peri-peri chicken. Carluccio’s has a classic Italian stamp. Pizza Express is the mid-market pizza haunt we all have a comforting familiarity with. And so on.
Carluccio’s, for example, has a threshold that immediately catapults the visitor into the abundance of Italian culture: wooden kitchen utensils, cookbooks, extra virgin olive oil, the deli counters and an excellent range of cantucci and panettone. It provides an emotional peak on entrance and exit – an authentic Italian setting to transport you during your visit.
But what does Jamie’s Italian own? What characteristic explicitly marks it from anywhere else and, importantly, is consistent across every venue? Only by owning something will restaurants like Jamie’s help customers form memories and build loyalty with the diners who truly connect with the brand.
The future wasn’t planned for
This brings me to my final and most important point. If a brand is successful today, it does not mean that it will be successful tomorrow, or in the future. This stands true for Jamie’s restaurant as well his own personal brand.
At the peak of his career, he was a best-selling author for cookbooks and a positive figure for change in Britain. Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold, and so he rightly started his own restaurant chain and wider business exploits.
But as the generations change and new trends carve the business agenda, the need for alluring authenticity, memorable experiences and stellar service become the minimum benchmarks to hit in order to stay relevant. No person, business or brand is immune to these fundamental market shifts, as we see today with Jamie and his restaurants.
Designing a brand and its retail space to be in step with the future is the only way to be flexible enough to change when the next big trend hits unexpectedly.
Jamie’s Italian simply wasn’t planned to meet challenges or changing tastes, with his own brand suffering too as he falls out of touch with his loyal demographic.
From a food retail perspective, restaurant chains can start to future-proof by creating a service offering which truly enhances the entire experience – beyond what is expected. Other industries such as beauty have already capitalised on this. Jamie’s Italian reportedly couldn’t quite hit the mark on basic service, let alone outstanding service. No one in the fast-casual sector is owning this area yet, and it’s a big opportunity.
Jamie’s Italian restaurants closing should be a wake-up call for everyone in the market – times are changing, people want more, and brands must adapt rather than stagnate and make a meal out of what could be a thriving business.
Alessandra Mariani is a strategist at brand and retail consultancy Fitch, she tweets @brandsinmypans